If we’re to believe the biomass energy industry, the U.S. Forest Service and a chorus of politicians from both sides of the aisle, we can solve the energy crisis, cure climate change and eradicate wildfire by logging and chipping our national forests and burning them up in biomass power facilities.
The plotline of their story goes something like this: Years of taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression in federal forests (at the behest of the timber industry) has resulted in “overgrown” forests crawling with icky bugs, ticking time bombs ready to burst into flames. And the fix, it just so happens, involves even more taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression, with the trees forked over to the biomass industry to burn in their incinerators and then the “green” electricity sold to utilities and eventually the public—at a premium.
This “burn the forest before it burns you” propaganda is most prevalent throughout the West, but it’s present anywhere there’s public land, with a total of 45.6 million acres across 94 national forests in 35 states qualifying as “Insect and Disease Area Designations” under the 2014 Farm Bill—money on the stump for the biomass industry.
Saving the Forest from Itself
The Forest Service’s logging-for-biomass agenda has “nothing to do with public welfare or the economy,” according to Carl Ross, executive director of Save America’s Forests, an organization that works to protect U.S. forests. Instead, it is simply a way to justify the existence of an agency whose “multi-billion dollar budget is dependent on cutting trees.” With the lumber industry in contraction due to a dismal housing market and tanked economy, the Forest Service focuses on “sick” forests that can only be “cured” through chainsaw surgery to fuel biomass incinerators.
The concept of logging a forest to “save” it is nothing new. It dates back to President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act in 2003. However, a recent uptick in national forest logging has accompanied a rash of new biomass incinerator proposals, with politicians and even some environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, cheering the industry on.
Currently, the majority—though not all—of the trees fueling the hundreds of biomass power plants across the country come from private land. However, as you read this, Colorado’s White River National Forest is being clearcut to feed the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass incinerator in Gypsum and plans are being hatched to hand national forests over to the biomass industry in Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota and Virginia.
Fanning the Flames of Fire Hysteria
As any Madison Avenue advertiser knows, the best way to sell a product is to make people afraid not to buy it: If you don’t wear these sneakers you won’t make the team. If you don’t use this shampoo you’ll never get the girl. If your tax dollars don’t fund the logging of public forests, your house will burn down. Inflaming anxieties around wildfire is one of the preferred tools of biomass supporters.
What the industry leaves out, however, is that “fuels reduction” or “wildfire prevention” logging, like any form of logging, degrades forests by compacting soil with heavy equipment and miles upon miles of logging roads, silts watersheds with eroding soils, and kills fish and wildlife. Industry and agency claims that “fuels reduction” plays the same function as wildfire ignore fire’s ecological role of refreshing forest stands, creating wildlife habitat, and returning carbon and nutrients back into the soil. What’s more, logging for biomass can be even more intensive than logging for lumber since it typically removes the high nutrient tops and branches which would otherwise be left in the forest to slowly decompose.
Luckily, science is catching up to common sense by demonstrating that wildfires, including large, “catastrophic” ones, were historically quite common; that large fires are more a product of drought, high temperatures and winds than “fuel” levels; and that the “effectiveness” of logging for wildfire is “not supported by a significant consensus of scientific research,” with the practice unlikely to slow fires, but instead running the risk of spreading them quicker by drying the forest and opening it to wind.
Humoring industry for a moment, even if logging could stop large wildfires and it was desirable to do so, the chance that a particular logged acreage will experience fire in the coming decades is pretty improbable. Cutting a given stand in a national forest on the off-chance that it might burn is like cutting off your thumb so you don’t hit it with a hammer.
Biomass supporters also claim that the mountain pine beetle increases the risk of wildfire, giving us yet another reason to log forests. It’s true that beetles might give some of us the willies, but insects have a crucial job in the forest, killing some trees to open up space for fresh growth. And while it’s true that two to three years after a visit from the mountain pine beetle a tree’s dying needles can make it more flammable, following that brief window, a tree is actually less apt to burn than when it was green and less prone to experience a crown fire.
Naturally, this hasn’t stopped industry from advocating for unscientific “preventative” treatment that involves logging before the beetle even shows up, or afterwards if it does, despite the lack of proof that doing so accomplishes anything. “Most research indicates that there is little or no such relationship between beetle-caused tree mortality and subsequent fire occurrence and severity in lodgepole pine forests,” concludes professor Bill Romme, who teaches forest and fire ecology at Colorado State University, in an article written for NASA’s Earth Observatory. Instead, fire is “controlled primarily by weather conditions” and the amount of fuels, including from beetle kill, is only a “minor influence on fire behavior.”
More research, such as “Effects of Bark Beetle-Caused Tree Mortality on Wildfire,” a report out of Utah State University, demonstrates that “generalizations about the effects of beetle-caused tree mortality on fire characteristics are unwarranted,” while concerns about soil scorching—a favorite boogeyman of the Forest Service—are also overinflated.
Biomass Doesn’t Live Up to Hype
Despite being touted as a “green” energy source by some, biomass energy typically falls short of its many promises.
Enthusiasts argue that biomass provides a valuable, low-carbon source of renewable energy. Trees and food crops grow back, they say, providing a never-ending stockpile of biomass material. Biomass has gotten a lot of attention because it can usually be accessed whenever needed, a benefit not shared with weather-dependent resources like solar and wind. What is more, advocates claim whatever comes out of the smokestack is harmless.
Unfortunately, particularly when it comes to using trees for fuel, most of these arguments just don’t pan out. Burning carbon-storing forests in an incinerator typically emits higher levels of climate-changing greenhouse gases per unit of energy than a dirty coal-fired plant. Not to mention that when you cut down a tree, you take away its future carbon storing potential. Biomass incinerators also produce harmful air pollution (including asthma-inducing particulate matter and carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds). And though biomass energy may be available around-the-clock, it simply isn’t a cost-effective source of energy—it is expensive to produce!
Those who want to see what “forest health treatments” feeding biomass incinerators actually look like need go no further than the Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project in Colorado’s White River National Forest. There, 1,600 acres are being clear-cut just outside of Frisco in response to the local mountain pine beetle “epidemic,” which peaked between 2007 and 2009 and has since subsided. All of the trees are fueling the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass facility.
West Range Reclamation won a bid to pay $8.6 million to log the White River for 10 years, with much of the wood being sold to the Eagle Valley biomass incinerator. Eagle Valley itself has received $40 million in loan guarantees from the Rural Utilities Service, a portion of an annual $12.5 million matching payment for feedstock transportation from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (part of the Farm Bill), and a $250,000 biomass utilization grant.
So where will Eagle Valley source its wood after the beetle-killed trees run out? Conveniently, the White River National Forest is proposing new “forest health” projects all the time, such as the recently announced Keystone Vegetation Management clearcutting project, with long-term plans to log 220,000 acres of the White River in total. And after those forests are gone, the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies wants to harness millions of more acres of national forests across all of Colorado and the rest of the Rocky Mountains.
Backcountry logging won’t get us anywhere. It doesn’t protect people from wildfires, though it does divert funding and attention from strategies that actually can, like making homes “firewise” (as demonstrated by the Forest Service’s own research), and it doesn’t provide a clean, economical, or sustainable source of energy. Ultimately, allowing the biomass industry to decimate our national forests just isn’t worth the impacts to clean water, fish and wildlife, flooding and erosion control, and recreation.
Josh Schlossberg of Boulder, Colorado is editor of The Biomass Monitor, the nation’s leading publication tracking the health and environmental impacts of biomass energy.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The chance that UK summer days could hit the 40 degree Celsius mark on the thermometer is on the rise, a new study from the country's Met Office Hadley Centre has found.
- As Extreme Weather Turns Deadly in the UK, Climate Activists Are ... ›
- UK Parliament First in World to Declare Climate Emergency ... ›
By Melissa Hawkins
After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
- U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Now No. 1 in World - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Pass 100,000 - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start ... ›
By Eoin Higgins
Climate advocates pointed to news Sunday that fracking giant Chesapeake Energy was filing for bankruptcy as further evidence that the fossil fuel industry's collapse is being hastened by the coronavirus pandemic and called for the government to stop propping up businesses in the field.
- Fracking Industry's Propaganda Hypes Shale Gas Production and ... ›
- Another Blow to the Fracking Industry—Chesapeake Energy's ... ›
- Former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon Is Back to ... ›
By Neil King and Gabriel Borrud
Human beings all over the world agreed to strict limitations to their rights when governments made the decision to enter lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis. Many have done it willingly on behalf of the collective. So why can't this same attitude be seen when tackling climate change?
- The Crunch Question on Climate: How Can I Help? - EcoWatch ›
- The Power of Collective Action Gangnam Style - EcoWatch ›
- Scientist Finds Remarkable Way to Connect People Emotionally ... ›
Fire experts have already criticized President Trump's planned fireworks event for this Friday at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial as a dangerous idea. Now, it turns out the event may be socially irresponsible too as distancing guidelines and mask wearing will not be enforced at the event, according to CNN.
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
- Attendees at Trump's First Rally Since March Can't Sue if They Get ... ›
By Emma Charlton
Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
- Food Waste Set to Increase by 33 Percent Within 10 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Reducing Food Waste Is Good for Economy and Climate, Report Says ›
- 23 Organizations Eliminating Food Waste During COVID-19 ... ›
Puerto Rico's governor declared a state of emergency on Monday after a severe drought on the island left 140,000 people without access to running water, despite the necessary role that hand washing and hygiene plays in stopping the novel coronavirus, as The Independent reported.
- When the Government Failed Puerto Rico, Local Communities ... ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›