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Our Forests Aren't Fuel
7 years ago

Government should protect us, not the polluters.

In the search for alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels, power companies are looking at an energy source called biomass, which is any kind of plant matter that was recently alive. Biomass can be turned into ethanol or burned like coal to generate heat and electricity. Many types of plant matter can be used for biomass energy, including specialized crops grown responsibly just for that purpose.

But now some companies are targeting wood from forests as an easy source of biomass. They want Congress to help them use our forest lands, even treasured National Forests, for energy production.

The Impacts

There are three main reasons we should be very concerned about how biomass for electricity is produced, and whether it comes from forests or other sources.

  • Forest Destruction
    You can plant new trees, but forests aren't 'renewable'. Natural forests, with their complex ecosystems, cannot be regrown like a crop of beans or lettuce. And tree plantations will never provide the clean water, storm buffers, wildlife habitat, and other ecosystem services that natural forests do.
  • Climate Change
    Tree loss is responsible for twenty percent of the carbon pollution produced globally. When biomass is harvested from forests, carbon stored in the soil is released into the atmosphere. This is in addition to the carbon that is emitted when the wood is burned for energy. And there's no guarantee the lost trees will ever be replaced. In the meantime, all that carbon pollution directly contributes to climate change. The entire lifecycle of biomass energy -- harvesting, transporting, processing, and regrowing -- factors into its total carbon emissions. Only biomass that is carefully chosen, grown responsibly, and efficiently converted into energy can reduce carbon and other emissions compared to fossil fuels.
  • Air Pollution
    Like burning coal or anything else, burning biomass produces harmful air pollution. Burning biomass produces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and a variety of toxic substances. These pollutants increase the incidence of asthma, heart disease, lung cancer and other respiratory ailments, and premature death. And whether they come from burning coal or burning forests, these substances pollute the air and harm people's health.
What is the federal government's role in the production of biomass electricity?

Biomass has become increasingly controversial as lawmakers seek to incentivize alternatives to fossil fuels, proposing tax credits for biomass producers and national mandates for renewable energy production that would greatly increase the use of biomass.

At the same time, industry lobbyists and their allies are pushing legislation that would strip the few biomass sourcing safeguards now in place, and pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to give industrial biomass burning a "free pass" on complying with Clean Air Act mandates to clean up toxic pollution and carbon pollution.

But don't we need alternatives to fossil fuels? What can we do to make sure we don't burn forests for electricity?

We all know we need to stop using coal, oil, and, eventually, natural gas if we want to protect our economic, our security and our health, and that to achieve this will mean investing more in alternative fuels and using them more efficiently. Biomass can be harvested and utilized in ways that reduce pollution and protect forest habitats, but only with sustainability safeguards and proper accounting for carbon emissions -- including carbon released due to deforestation. NRDC supports biomass energy that isn't cultivated at the expense of our natural ecosystems, but incorporates comprehensive standards that protect environmental resources and human health.



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