As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress continue to consider the path forward for biomass energy policy, both will rely on a substantial body of science to inform their decisions. Ideally they will use the contributions of science to develop a policy that is both scientifically sound and practical to implement.
The robust discussion in the science community on biomass helps illuminate points of agreement among scientists. For example, EPA’s science panel on biogenic carbon emissions, after reviewing the available literature and the views of a variety of science experts, has determined that it is appropriate when measuring net biomass carbon emissions to use changes in forest carbon across broad geographic scales over a 100 year timeframe and to consider the impact of markets that stimulate forest investment, replanting and retention. These findings are consistent with the conclusions of leading forestry scientists around the country, as stated in a March 21 letter to the science panel. Such agreement informs good policy.
To their credit, the scientists coalescing around these and other similar science fundamentals recognize that their conclusions can support a variety of policy approaches. Consistent with established norms they are careful to advocate science without advocating any specific policy approach.
Unfortunately, however, some organizations engaged on biomass blur the line between science and advocacy, presenting advocacy positions as though they were science conclusions. These include suggesting as scientific fact that biomass is worse for the climate than coal, or that new markets for biomass threaten forest destruction in the U.S. rather than promoting forest retention and growth. Such positions confuse rather than inform policy makers.
Take, for example, the argument that biomass utilization threatens the sustainability of forests. A common claim, framed in terms of science, is that biomass markets – particularly those in Europe using biomass from the southern United States – lead to unsustainable overharvesting and forest destruction, particularly in hardwood forests. Yet, harvest data show that the annual amount of biomass removed from southern forests for this purpose is less than one tenth of one percent of the total forest inventory. The hardwood portion totals about six-one hundredths of one percent of the total hardwood inventory. Future demand projections suggest that the total amount of biomass removed from the south to supply Europe could rise to as much as three tenths of one percent of the total inventory. Forest destruction? The data simply don’t support the claim or any effort to lend it scientific credibility. The argument also goes against historical fact—that strong markets support forest retention.
Fortunately, most policy makers in Congress and the Administration recognize the clear boundaries between science and advocacy and continue to rely on the objective views of the science community to inform their thinking. Likewise, the large majority of scientists avoid crossing the advocacy line to preserve the objectivity of their work.
Policy makers are well advised to beware of advocacy posing as science, particularly with regard to biomass energy. Respecting the line between science and advocacy will perpetuate good science and foster a practical policy for biomass that will be good for our forests and our country.