The Myth of Forest Biomass Energy
On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump assumed the Presidency. The forest product industry almost immediately pushed a lobbying campaign to fully legitimize burning forests for energy. In 2016, industry scientists claimed to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that burning forest biomass is carbon neutral. Independent scientists said burning trees for energy is dirtier than coal.
In 2018, Republicans passed legislation establishing biomass as a “carbon neutral” fuel. This act was implemented by successive EPA heads – disgraced Scott Pruitt and coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler – and MAGA stalwart Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, along with corruption-prone Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. Our nation’s climate policy was in thrall to industry.
Trump is gone but his biomass legacy endures. Nationally and locally we are told the forests can be burned for “renewable” biomass energy because this helps improve forest “health.” Neither statement is true. We cannot trust slanted industry studies and models that claim we need forest treatments. They cherry-pick evidence and make questionable assumptions to reach pro-industry conclusions. The influence of money is driving the narrative recommending large continuing forest “treatments” to provide “feedstock” for biomass energy generation.
For example, the Forest Service’s budget depends on making money on logging. Its strategy for the wildfire crisis focuses on “thinning” (logging) on public lands to prevent wildfire intrusion into communities, targeting 80% removal in some areas. Many other scientists dispute this is the best way to mitigate community risk. “Thinning” makes the forest hotter, drier and windier – and more susceptible to wind-driven fire. Still, the industry pushes for more forest “feedstock” to fuel experimental biomass plants sited in the forests.
In 2022, the State of California issued a Roadmap targeting over 1 million acres of forest lands annually for "treatment." This vast initiative also targets Emerging Opportunities for Forest Biomass, including biofuels.
Protect homes, communities
We need effective and efficient management of wildfires over the long run. To protect homes and communities we should focus on the home ignition zone, including fire resistant design and zoning, and fuels management within 100 feet of structures, with robust help from state and local government.
In 2018, Trump made forest biomass energy “renewable” by giving it a “longer-term time horizon” of 100 years to recover (regrow) the carbon debt from cutting and burning trees. CO2 is emitted when trees are cut down. But regrowth takes time, and the world does not have much time to solve climate change. Numerous studies have shown this burning of wood will increase warming for decades to centuries. Carbon is lost when trees are cut down and again when they are burned. Use of forests for bioenergy will undermine both climate goals and the world’s biodiversity by shifting from burning fossil fuels to burning trees to generate energy.
Could it happen here?
The answer is, yes. Influential forces at the state level are pushing for massive removals of biomass in California forests to serve as “feedstock” for biomass energy and biofuel. The County’s consultant from UC Berkeley, CLEE, has proposed biomass burning for energy for Sonoma County. Another UC entity, Lawrence Livermore Lab, has a similar state-wide proposal involving burning forests and other biomass sources. Our own utility, Sonoma Clean Power, was supporting the false solution of biomass energy for its “Evergreen” portfolio last year. The Sonoma Biomass Business Competition was launched in 2021 to encourage businesses to turn wildfire risk into a development opportunity. Last year, over 4 million tons of wood pellets from US forests, mainly from the southeast, were exported to Europe and written off as renewable energy.
The good news is Sonoma County residents are protective of their beloved County. The problem will be the temptation of subsidies and incentives, including grants to private landowners. Enormous amounts of wildfire resilience and climate mitigation money are pouring in.
Please ask your Supervisor to ban the local processing of forest biomass to bioenergy, and prohibit the export of local forest biomass for bioenergy.
Janis Watkins grew up in rural Sonoma County, where her father was a UC farm advisor. She practiced law here for many years and volunteers with the environmental nonprofit Sonoma County Conservation Action.
Jenny Blaker came to Cotati from the U.K. She is passionately interested in a range of local environmental issues. She has an MA in Conservation Psychology from SSU’s Action for a Viable Future program, and is co-coordinator of the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations.