Turning the tide on rising carbon dioxide to address climate change is going to be difficult. The hopes of the world hang on the recent Paris agreement on climate change, signed by the U.S. and almost 200 other countries. One recommendation in the agreement shines in its clarity – that the nations of the world should protect and restore forests and their ability to take up carbon dioxide, the major driver of climate change.
In contrast, legislation introduced by Maine’s U.S. senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, would actually threaten forests and increase carbon emissions.
This legislation, Amendment 3140 to the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012), would force the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies to treat wood-burning power plants as if they have zero carbon dioxide emissions – although they emit 50 percent more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour than coal-fired power plants.
Treating bioenergy as if it has zero carbon emissions is based on the idea that forests can grow back and reabsorb the carbon released after being cut for fuel. The problem is that while burning wood emits carbon dioxide instantly, forest regrowth and carbon reabsorption take decades – time we don’t have in the race to reduce emissions.
We do not have to imagine what an alternate future for the forests of Maine and the region could be if the Collins-King amendment passes, because it is already playing out in the southeastern United States.
Europe’s policy of treating bioenergy as if it has zero carbon dioxide emissions has fueled massive expansion in wood pellet manufacture in several Southern states, where bottomland hardwood and pine plantation forests alike are being clear-cut, pelletized and shipped to Europe to be burned in converted coal plants. A policy forcing the EPA to ignore greenhouse gas emissions from burning wood could mean that even more U.S. forests would meet a similar fate.
Here in the U.S., to its credit, the EPA has recognized that biomass is not automatically carbon neutral, and there is broad agreement among climate scientists, forest ecologists and environmental groups that cutting and burning trees to generate electricity increases carbon emissions to the atmosphere.
In its denial of this overwhelming scientific consensus, the Collins-King amendment is reminiscent of climate change denial. In fact, three out of the seven Senate co-sponsors on the amendment are noted climate change deniers – Idaho Republicans Mike Crapo and James Risch, along with Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana.
The Collins-King amendment is bad for forests and bad for the climate, both at home and in the nation as a whole. Overcutting is preventing large portions of Maine’s extensive forests from maturing, thus reducing their ability to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
However, Maine could be a leader in climate change mitigation if policymakers rejected policies that promote intensive cutting and bioenergy and instead maximized forests’ ability to store carbon. Creating parks and carbon reserves, and promoting policies that value and maximize carbon storage in logged forests, offer tremendous promise for stabilizing our fragile atmosphere.
Countries of the world committed in Paris to reducing emissions, but as the agreement acknowledges, the pledges now on the table will not prevent a dangerous increase in global temperatures. If enacted, the Collins-King amendment would not only promote cutting and chipping more forests in Maine for fuel, but also across the country, transferring forest carbon into the atmosphere on a massive scale.
Maine citizens should call on Sens. Collins and King to withdraw their pro-biomass Amendment 3140 from the Energy Policy Modernization Act, and to ask President Obama to veto the bill if it comes to his desk with this or other provisions that declare wood-based bioenergy to be “carbon neutral.”
In the face of the Paris agreement’s urgent goal of maximizing forest carbon uptake, one thing is certain – we cannot reduce emissions by burning wood for energy and pretending that the emissions do not warm the climate.