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NRDC fact sheet lays out biomass basics, campaign calls for action to tell EPA our forests aren't fuel

Sasha Stashwick

Posted May 2, 2011

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Today NRDC and our partners are calling on all concerned citizens to learn about the risks of using the wrong types of biomass for energy and to tell EPA not to allow power companies to use the worst types of biomass—whole trees from our forests—as fuel for producing electricity. To help our readers learn more about the topic, we’ve released a new fact sheet on why burning trees for energy is destructive and my colleague Nathanael has written here about ways we can get biomass right and wrong and how you can get involved with today’s campaign on Twitter and Facebook.

If you love forests, please take action by telling EPA not to allow power companies to burn trees for fuel.

In a nutshell, here’s what’s going on:

EPA has clearly stated that “all carbon dioxide counts” towards determining whether large power plants must take reasonable steps under the Clean Air Act to reduce how much dangerous pollution they will put into the air. But powerful corporations in the electricity and forestry industries are pushing EPA to create a loophole in the law to keep emissions from burning biomass from being regulated like the emissions from coal or other fossil fuels.

As we’ve discussed here and here, EPA’s plan to exempt the carbon pollution emitted from plants that burn biomass for the next three years will create a powerful incentive for power plants to shift from burning coal to burning biomass—regardless of the actual impact on our climate. During these three years there will be no federal limits on burning even the worst sources of biomass. And because the supply of truly sustainable, low-carbon forestry wastes is extremely limited, expanding biomass power means burning more whole trees.

Our forests give us so much: habitats for wild animals, fresh air, clean water and places to hike and camp. Burning forests for energy puts all these valuable services in jeopardy and can contribute more to global warming and toxic air pollution than using even the dirty fuels like coal. That’s because just like coal, when trees are burned, the carbon they have accumulated over long periods of time is released. But unlike coal, living and growing trees continue to absorb carbon from the atmosphere if left alone. So burning trees means destroying valuable carbon sinks.

Now is the time to tell EPA that we support their authority to enforce Clean Air Act standards to reduce carbon pollution that harms human health and the environment, but that giving emissions from biomass energy sources a free pass and letting power companies mine our forests for fuel is unacceptable.

We here at NRDC delivered this message to EPA at a public hearing held earlier this month. Now it’s your turn. To take action, go to NRDC’s action center and tell EPA that our forests aren’t fuel.

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Dr. James SingmasterMay 3 2011 02:12 AM

We are going to have to use the right biomass to recover from the effects of overloads of carbon dioxide and energy already in the biosphere. Our biowastes are massive ever-expanding messes presently mishandled in very dumb waste operations as we are allowing biowastes to biodegrade to reemit trapped carbon dioxide. And hazards of germs, drugs and toxics are escaping to pollute our water and foods. Over a year ago EPA put limits on several drugs showing up in some drinking water systems. Somehow no environmentalists seem to have any concern about where the drugs came from and no one has called for action to stop escapes. WHAT will happen if the levels suddenly exceed the limits????
Burning biowastes even if the energy gets used means releasing the trapped carbon dioxide, but that will require trapping the gas if you want to get control of climate change(CC). A much better process is pyrolysis as used to make charcoal by Kingsford and others with just wood, and pyrolysis will destroy the germs, toxics and drugs. I have outlined in comments on many blog postings including Switchboard how pyrolysis works to give an expelled mix of organic chemicals and charcoal. With biowastes, 50% or so of the carbon gets converted to charcoal that will include some nutrient elements especially phosphorus. And using this kind of charcoal as a soil amendment to supply that element may become very necessary for farming soon as natural mineral sources of that element are dwindling to an end point according to a group at Ariz. S. U..
Trying to keep trees growing forever is not natural as they will start decaying or getting broken by wind. Right now we have a major source of trapped carbon in millions of acres of dying white pines in the Pacific NW that can be come a major fire hazard. So we ought to get a CCC program going to harvest the trees while planting other species. Charcoal made from straight wood can serve to smelt iron ore as was done several centuries ago. If we develop using harvested damaged trees and get some tree farms going for future harvesting to make into charcoal, we would not need to be tearing up the Appalachians for soft coal to smelt iron ore. And that would reduce considerably the mercury emissions from using soft coal.
We need to get a forest recovery program in the Pacific NW and should envision it as being a forever recycling bioenergy program having as its main purpose of getting some fuel and energy and of getting soft coal use stopped. And it will be getting some of the CO2 overload in the biosphere reduced in using the charcoal from biowastes as a soil amendment. This will supply some energy but the main source of clean energy has to come from using the sun much more effectively. Using the sun to generate hydrogen may soon be viable as Dr. Nocera at recent Amer. Chem. Soc. meeting in Anaheim last month showed a catalytic plate that when put in water start releasing hydrogen when exposed to sunlight.
But we have to go carbon negative to reduce the CO2 level perhaps more to save the oceans being disrupted from lower pH caused by higher CO2 levels than to control CC. By remaking coal through using pyrolysis with never ending biowastes and with constantly farmed wood supplies we can remove that gas from being overloaded in the biosphere.
Dr. J. Singmaster, Environmental Chemist, Ret.

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