40+ Leading Scientists Call on EPA to Protect Forests From Biomass Industry
By Sasha Lyutse
Yesterday, 41 leading scientists sent a letter to the EPA calling on the agency to protect our forests from the growing sucking sound created by biomass power plants. The scientists urged the agency to put in place a regulatory system that is both science-based and takes into account the key recommendations of the science panel the agency itself commissioned.
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As power plants look for alternatives to fossil fuels, some are turning to burning wood or other plant materials—known as biomass—to generate electricity. The biomass industry argues that because trees grow back, biomass offers a “carbon neutral” form of energy.
But not all biomass is created equal. Trees are not the same as perennial grasses or harvest residues that can either regrow quickly, would otherwise be burned in the field or are not needed for other purposes. And the latest science tells us that burning whole trees for energy results in more carbon emissions than burning coal for decades. That’s because trees are less energy dense than coal, so you have to burn a lot more of them to produce the same amount of energy. Even worse, harvesting them for fuel means we forego the carbon they would have absorbed from the atmosphere if we left them standing.
In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took on this question. It issued a three-year exemption for biomass-burning plants from permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act (basically a requirement that each new and modified industrial source gets a construction permit before starting to build, showing that it will use the “best available control technology” for each pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act). The agency then initiated a science-driven process to develop rules for properly quantifying biomass carbon emissions from plants burning biomass. It issued a draft methodology for doing the necessary carbon accounting, then empaneled a group of expert scientists, known as the Science Advisory Board (SAB), to assess the scientific validity of the proposed approach.
Now in the home stretch of developing those rules, the message from the scientific community is clear:
Regulations governing how stationary sources account for biogenic carbon emissions must be based on sound science and ensure adequate protections for forests and the climate and the EPA must follow through on the science-driven process for creating those regulations that it put in place more than two years ago. As the letter states,
"Doing otherwise at this juncture will fail the test of rigorous, science-based policymaking and could result in regulations that distort the marketplace towards greater use of unsustainable sources of biomass, with significant risks to our climate, forests and the valuable ecosystem services they provide and we rely on.”
The scientists also shared their serious reservations about the accounting methodology the EPA proposed in its draft framework and underscored three key conclusions of the SAB’s final report:
- Bioenergy is not inherently carbon neutral. Instead, it is critical that the EPA consider the heterogeneity in biomass feedstock types, sources and bioenergy production methods define carbon outcomes based on “what the atmosphere sees”.
- The EPA cannot grant biomass-burning power plants credit for forest growth and carbon sequestration that would be happening anyway. Only when bioenergy results in additional carbon being sequestered above and beyond the anticipated baseline (the “business as usual” trajectory) can there be a justification for concluding that such energy use results in little or no increase in carbon emissions.
- The EPA must develop a scientifically-sound methodology for determining the carbon emissions impact to the atmosphere from burning long-recovery biomass feedstocks—most notably, whole trees. This requires comparing forest growth and carbon sequestration on the landscape with biomass sourcing for energy production to what would have happened absent bioenergy.
Power plants account for 40 percent of our national carbon footprint. That makes the EPA’s effort to reduce carbon pollution from power plants a key part of the Obama administration’s climate fighting initiatives and ensuring that we are rigorously accounting for biomass carbon emissions will be critical to its integrity. As the scientists conclude, the only way to encourage bioenergy facilities to source low-carbon biomass resources, efficiently burn or otherwise convert them to electricity and to use the electricity and heat in the applications that most effectively reduce carbon emissions is for the agency to follow the science.
It’s critical that the EPA heeds the science community’s call and follows through on the standard it set for itself in issuing rules for the bioenergy industry. It can do both by adopting its science panel's key recommendations.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
Typhoon Molave is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Wednesday with 90 mph winds and heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding and landslides, according to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare for the powerful storm that already tore through the Philippines, Vietnam is making plans to evacuate nearly 1.3 million people along the central coast, as Reuters reported.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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