Sunday, June 13, 2010

Environmental Politics at Play in Manomet Biomass Forestry Study

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By Genevieve Fraser
A study commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and released last week by the Manomet Center for Conservation Studies claims that power generated by the burning of biomass is worse for the climate than producing power from coal.
The Manomet study concludes that somehow coal is cleaner than wood by neglecting to include the other greenhouse gases that are released by burning coal - including the acid rain producing sulphur. In addition, determining a carbon footprint includes assessing more than the elements released at the time of its use. A carbon footprint also involves the process needed to extract that resource.
The Manoment study looked at the process of extracting wood but failed to include the process needed to extract coal which involves deeper and deeper mining operations, or removing mountains through deforestation where entire forests are removed and burned and rocks and soils blasted to smithereens. In extracting coal, massive equipment expends massive amounts of fuel, and all too often lives are lost. In short, mining for coal creates an ecological catastrophe.
Compare extracting coal to the process undertaken by a local logging company selectively harvesting trees from the woods while upholding environmental safeguards overseen by a forester with an approved forestry plan. (Clear-cuts are typically applied to monocultures - plantations of trees not native to New England - or trees that are at risk of disease and fire.)  And though oil is less "dirty" than coal, the carbon footprint needed to extract it should also be part of the equation - as exemplified by the BP horror show in the Gulf.
Another consideration is the long-distance travel needed to bring coal and oil to Massachusetts markets.
A tip-off that the state of Massachusetts is playing politics with their findings is found by comparing the state's press release to a press release issued by the Forest Guild, one of the major contributors to the Manomet report.  One would think they are discussing two different studies. 
"New Study Demonstrates the Climate Benefits of Sustainable Use Forest Biomass for Thermal Energy in Massachusetts," reads the headlines dated June 10, 2010.
"A new report released today confirms for the state of Massachusetts that sustainably using woody biomass from forests to replace oil heat can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A team led by Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences (Manomet), including the Forest Guild, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, the Biomass Energy Resource Center, and private consultants, worked to answer questions about forest biomass and carbon for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER). The study looked at how much wood might be available in Massachusetts and the carbon impact of using wood for energy. The Forest Guild contributed to the study by providing information on the potential impacts of biomass harvesting and guidelines for ensuring the sustainability of biomass harvesting."
"The team’s study of biomass availability showed that based on the best available economic data, between 150,000 and 250,000 green tons of forest biomass could be utilized. This would be enough biomass to supply as many as 16 typically sized thermal energy facilities in the state," the Forest Guild statement asserts. "Wood initially releases more CO2 per unit of energy than fossil fuels, but that CO2 is sequestered as the forest regrows. Therefore, the climate benefits of using sustainably harvested biomass increase significantly over time. Using forest biomass yields greenhouse gas reductions within approximately five years when it replaces thermal energy from oil and within approximately 20 years when it replaces electricity generated from coal. The carbon account varies depending on how the biomass is harvested, which the report describes in detail."
Note: Genevieve Fraser is an Independent candidate for state representative for the 2nd Franklin District.
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  1. Truth is, nothing we burn is going to be carbon-neutral. Time to invest in solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric.

  2. Well now,a candidate on a roll with little science. What about the methane claims you made on your website? Just so you know, methane isnt produced in an open forest with plenty of oxygen, its produced in swamps and landfills. you stopped using that one I see. Now its OK to strip our public forests instead of coal mining areas I guess. But wait, why not put all that money into solar and geothermal, which have zero impact?? That instead of the Flintstone era wood burning methods? I don't see Ms. Fraser advocating that, since its not popular with the timber industry, her big supporters. Lots of timber people are now sellling solar and geothermal up in Vermont.

  3. Coal initially releases CO2 when burned, but that CO2 is eventually taken up by forests and it also dissolves in the ocean. See the same sort of logically misleading statement is true no matter what you burn. Now, how is CO2 from burning trees any worse? Well it requires that you first cut down the trees that were just sequestering the CO2, so that makes it much worse. And it released 50% more CO2, per unit of energy, than burning coal. I am not saying that we do not need to drastically reduce our consumption of carbon, but I am saying that chopping down healthy forests, like Fraser is promoting, to burn in smokestacks is complete insanity.

    Another argument that is being made is that forests produce methane, a much more potent GHG. One of the biggest sources of methane is agriculture, especially good old red meat production. Wet and saturated animal manures become anaerobic very quickly because of all those concentrated nutrients, and the bacteria use up any available oxygen very rapidly. It smells like that because it is anaerobic. Most septic systems produce some methane, just like swamps, marshes, wetlands, etc. The single most important thing that an individual can do to reduce GHGs is to stop eating commercially produced meat. It is probably the easiest thing to do as well. If you really want to reduce methane, become a vegetarian.

    To claim that any forest slash or tops would produce large quantities of methane, except if they were intentionally buried or dumped into a wetland, just indicates that the people making these claims have no knowledge of microbiology or understanding of redox reactions. But to claim that even an insignificant portion of slash or tree tops and limbs are going to release methane is biologically absurd.

    The real danger from methane is that the boreal forests that contain perma-frost soils will thaw out, due to climate change (it is already happening) and that the organic matter contained in those wet soils will warm up enough to allow great increases in microbial decomposition to occur, resulting in huge emissions of methane. Canada and Siberia could see this happen in a big way.

    Diverting wood from landfills is a great idea. Landfills are a terrifically bad idea. I inspected them all over Pennsylvania in the early '80s and I never met one that I didn't hate. I measured methane migration from landfills and we made them put in vents so that the methane would not migrate into basements and result in explosions. 30 years ago the methane was just vented straight to the air. Some places like Noho, collect their landfill methane and burn it for energy. However, methane production from a landfill is a generally slow process in that large pieces of wood might take hundreds of years to decompose, if it would ever be completely consumed. Burning that wood takes only minutes, not decades, so the comparison is being done with a sleight-of-hand time warp to compare methane production over a century vs the immediate release of 100% CO2. A good example of how to lie with numbers. Submerged logs in water can last hundreds or even thousands of years, but eventually they will decompose, so burning them must be better, yes?

    If people are going to try to use global warming arguments when convenient, even though we know it is a hoax being used by enviros to raise money or to stifle the "free" market, then at least pick some argument that is not so obviously ridiculous. Or else have the junk science funded by Exxon-Mobil ready to prove your point.

    Forest incineration is ecologically wrong, it is morally wrong, and it is economically only possible with huge subsidies. Wasting limited resources on burning forests for energy takes those subsidies away from zero-carbon alternatives. Burning our forests is probably the worst thing that can be done. Even if Bush's EPA says that incineration-produced energy is clean, safe, and too cheap to meter.

    Glen Ayers, Soil Microbiologist