Each time forests in the eastern United States are clear-cut to produce biomass wood pellets for energy, massive amounts of carbon stored in the trees and soils are released into the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that offsetting those emissions would take 40 years, or even centuries.
Wood pellets are made from forest biomass and are burned as fuel to produce electricity in power plants. And it's big business for Enviva, the world's largest wood pellet producer. Most of Enviva's pellets are shipped overseas, to be burned in power plants in Europe, with the E.U.'s blessing — all because of a misunderstanding of the science.
When the European Union (E.U.) created a Renewable Energy Directive in 2009, they classified wood biomass as a renewable energy. That was a major mistake, which overlooked the fundamental science — the fact is, at the smokestack, wood emits more carbon dioxide than coal for every unit of electricity produced. According to one estimate, power plants that burn biomass emit 150 percent more carbon dioxide than those burning coal.
The U.S. could make the same mistake the E.U. did back in 2009. This year, Congressional proponents of the biomass industry succeeded in inserting a stealth "rider" into a must-pass appropriations bill that aims to characterize forest biomass as "carbon neutral." The biomass industry is trying to win clean energy subsidies as well as exemptions from the Clean Air Act by falsely claiming that they're carbon neutral.
In order to avoid the worst effects of climate catastrophe, we need to understand biomass fuel for what it is: a threat to our climate, wildlife, forests, air quality, and the vulnerable communities where polluters like Enviva set up shop.
By: Sami Yassa Senior Scientist, NRDC