Chopping down trees and feeding them to power plants for electricity is a genuinely awful idea. It hurts biodiversity, belches toxic chemicals and contributes more to climate change than coal—all while masquerading as a source of clean “renewable” energy.
Unfortunately, none of this stopped 46 senators from publicly endorsing the idea last week. Led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the group wrote a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy demanding that the agencies accept something that is clearly, demonstrably false: that biomass power is carbon neutral. While the letter was chock full of anti-science Senators like David Vitter (R-LA), others like Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) fancy themselves climate leaders and should know better.
The science is clear. Sending whole trees through the smokestacks of power plants is a terrible way to generate electricity. Even using rosy accounting assumptions, it could take at least 50 years to work-off the carbon debt and break even with coal, meaning that burning wood now puts extra emissions into the atmosphere at precisely the time when reductions are most important. At the end of the day it is simply an inefficient source of electricity, emitting 50 percent more carbon than coal generating the same amount of energy. Leaving trees alone and allowing them to function as natural carbon sinks is a much more effective way to mitigate climate change.
The troubling part is that the timing of this letter wasn’t an accident. Any day, the U.S. EPA is expected to release the final version of its Clean Power Plan, the rule designed to lower carbon emissions from power plants, and one of the biggest questions is how favorably the rule is going to treat biomass. This means that the senators are angling to make sure that as states implement the rule, wood biomass is guaranteed as an option.