The recent Economic Scene column in the New York Times (Next ‘Renewable Energy’: Burning Forests if Senators Get Their Way) illustrates well how opinion posing as journalism around biomass energy misinforms readers.
Setting aside the fact that the hastily crafted and non-peer reviewed economic report cited by the Times as its primary “authoritative” information source was later corrected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration or the fact that biomass is, by definition, renewable there is much more in the article that is just plain wrong and misleading.
Three examples illustrate this point.
First, the Times argues that “Power companies would produce fewer emissions if they burned coal and left forests alone to keep sucking carbon out of the air.” They base this conclusion on an assumption that whole forests are cleared for biomass ("demand for biomass power under this scenario from now to 2030 would require clear-cutting six million to eight million acres of forest"). What they choose to ignore is that biomass is the lowest value product removed from the forest or left over in the manufacturing processes. Privately owned forests, which comprise nearly 60 percent of our nation’s total forestland, aren’t managed to produce biomass. Forest owners invest in their land to grow large, valuable trees used to make homes, furniture and other high value products. Biomass is the byproduct. Suggesting that biomass drives forest clearing or fundamentally determines forest management on private forests would earn a failing grade in a forest economics or forest investment 101 class – ironic for a column claiming to “explore the world’s most urgent economic challenges.”
Second, the Times contends that the carbon in biomass removed from a location can only be replaced by tree growth in that location ("it takes many decades for seedlings to grow into trees and recapture all the carbon emitted"). This purposefully overlooks the basic and broadly acknowledged scientific principle that forests are dynamic systems that interact with the atmosphere across vast landscapes over long timeframes, not individual plots that operate in isolation in relatively short time spans. Because the carbon released in one place is replaced in real time by carbon sequestered in other places across the landscape, a forest system where growth and removals are in balance does not increase carbon accumulations in the atmosphere, whether the removals are used for biomass or some other purpose. Today the overall amount of carbon our forests sequester, especially on private forests, significantly outpaces the amount of carbon removed through harvest. In fact, over the past 60 years the amount of wood in our nation’s forests has increased by 50 percent.
Finally, the Times maintains that scientists are “scared” that “burning biomass as a ‘zero-carbon fuel’ could seriously erode…climate gains.” This claim disregards the thoroughly peer-reviewed conclusions of scientists across the world, recognized by 100 leading forest scientists in the United States in March 2016 and November 2014 letters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that the use of biomass provides significant carbon benefits and is a valuable tool for inducing continued tree regrowth in privately owned forests. This was a basic premise behind the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that "In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained [carbon] mitigation benefit.”
Perhaps it is a pervasive unwillingness to consider the broader biomass picture that compelled the Times to add to the list of errors in its article the suggestion that legislation pending in Congress would “force the government to assume that burning forests for energy does not add carbon dioxide to the air” when, in fact, the legislation requires federal agencies to work together to develop a consistent policy based on long-standing and well-understood science principles. The Times also conveniently overlooked the fact that the language they most directly attack in the Senate bill was adopted unanimously without a single dissenting voice. But then again, if fundamentally wrong and misleading journalism is the objective, then this description of the legislation and the assertions behind it hit the nail squarely on the head.