Scott Pruitt burned another first-class ticket flying to New Hampshire this month to deliver timber executives a free ride to pollute the air and the climate. After a closed-door meeting with industry representatives, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency promised rapid action on one of their most controversial demands: a declaration that burning trees to produce electricity is a “carbon neutral” source of energy.
Like so much else from Pruitt and the Trump administration, this defies science and is bad for our environment. It wrongly conflates the use of so-called biomass with truly renewable resources like wind or solar power.
Cutting and burning trees in power plants puts millions of tons of carbon pollution in the air immediately — at levels comparable to fossil fuels. Industry lobbyists argue new trees will recapture that carbon, but that regrowth takes decades, and in the meantime those carbon emissions will do real damage. In many places, the forests may never return.
To prevent the immediate risks from climate change, we’ve got to curtail our reliance on fossil fuels. But burning trees instead is a step in the wrong direction.
The threat is real. In parts of the Southeast, unique hardwood forests that are massive storehouses of carbon are being destroyed and turned into pellets that are shipped to power plants in Europe. There the pellets are burned in place of coal — and the power plants get credit for producing clean energy. In reality, the carbon pollution from the smokestack is comparable to that from coal.
Wood that is harvested from forests belongs in sawmills, pulp mills and wood products facilities, not in power plants. In some limited cases it can make sense to use wood chips or sawdust to produce energy instead of using coal or gas. Some kinds of crop waste also can be beneficially used.
Pruitt is characteristically ignoring the science by contemplating a broad declaration. After all, Pruitt has dismissed the scientifically established link between the carbon pollution and the warming of our planet — and even claimed that a hotter planet might be good for us. He’s also trying to roll back EPA’s commonsense standards to cut carbon pollution from America’s power plants and cars.
The good news is that Congress can fix this. As part of last year’s omnibus spending bill, several lawmakers slipped in a provision preempting a federal science review and declaring by fiat that biomass should be labeled carbon neutral.
That provision lasts for only one year, however. In the next few weeks, as Congress writes this year’s overdue spending bill, it should strip out this scientifically indefensible provision.
Our nation is making tremendous strides to reduce carbon pollution from electricity generation. The market is helping, too. Already, meeting U.S. electricity needs via energy efficiency, solar and wind is cheaper than ever. In fact, it’s cheaper than using biomass in our power plants.
We can meet our energy needs without decimating our forests. All we need is for Congress to redirect Pruitt and make him follow the science instead of the whims of his industry pals.
Sami Yassa is a senior scientist in the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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