Mandating that there are no net carbon emissions from burning forest biomass to produce energy does not make it so in fact. Photo: Marcus Kauffman/Flickr

On Bioenergy, Budgets, and Why Legislating Scientific Facts Is Never a Good Idea

, director of science & policy | May 24, 2017, 5:17 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Understanding the Budget

We need members of Congress to resist the Trump administration’s call for deep cuts to federal science and science-based environmental and public health protections in its proposed FY18 budget. We also need to keep them from adding anti-science special provisions, or ‘policy riders,’ in the budget bill they ultimately pass.

There is reason for both hope and concern.

Earlier this month, Congress passed an omnibus FY17 spending bill that rejected the administration’s proposed draconian cuts and protected funding for key programs across federal agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The final budget was a real—albeit short-term—win for science and evidence-based policy making.

An unrelated policy rider, premised on incorrect science

But Congress also included in the bill a completely unrelated bioenergy policy rider, premised on incorrect science, with potentially damaging impacts on both US forests and on carbon emissions for years to come.

This hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, so let’s unpack it a bit.

Buried on page 902 in the appropriations bill, the bioenergy policy rider instructs the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to establish policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy.”

The biomass industry has been lobbying Congress to incorporate such language in legislation for years. Today, the US industry is fairly small, with wood energy-fueled power plants struggling to compete with lower-cost power from natural gas, wind, and solar.

But once comprehensive federal policies designed to reduce carbon pollution are enacted, the assumption of wood energy as “carbon neutral” would help make these power plants more cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

A false assertion of carbon neutrality

The problem is, burning forest biomass to make electricity is not inherently carbon-neutral. In fact, under some conditions burning woody biomass releases as much or more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as does burning coal.

Last year, when the Senate was considering similar language in a piece of energy legislation, I joined more than 60 other forest and climate experts on a letter reminding Senators that “[r]emoving the carbon dioxide released from burning wood through new tree growth requires many decades to a century, and not all trees reach maturity because of drought, fire, insects or land use conversion. All the while the added carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere trapping heat.”

Establishing forest bioenergy polices based on the false assertion of carbon neutrality, we wrote, “puts forest carbon in the atmosphere contributing to climate change instead of keeping it in living, productive forests that provide multiple benefits of water and wetland protection, flood control, soils protection, wildlife habitat, improved air quality and recreational benefits for hunters and all who enjoy being in the great out-of-doors.”

Bioenergy policies must be based on an accurate assessment of potential net carbon emissions from forest biomass. Mandating that there are no net carbon emissions from burning forest biomass to produce energy does not make it so in fact.

A cautionary tale for the next budget fight

President Trump and the Republican-led Congress may have temporarily slowed federal policies to limit carbon emissions. But such limits will come. And while the FY17 omnibus spending bill only funds the federal government for five months, there is a serious risk is that this rider could pose harmful impacts on forests and climate policy that could persist until undone by future legislation.

As my colleague Rob Cowin writes, this is also “a cautionary tale for the FY18 budget fight. Special interest amendments…..have the ability to make a reasonable budget an unsavory bill. The biomass rider got in because it had bipartisan support. Constituents will…need to hold their members of congress accountable if they don’t want government funding bills to become delivery devices for bad, long-lived policy.”

 

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