Next ‘Renewable Energy’: Burning Forests, if Senators Get Their Way
By Eduardo Porter
Oct 4 2016
President Obama’s Clean Power Plan — the central plank in his strategy to combat climate change — is in danger.
It’s not just that it is under attack in court, where its legality was challenged last week by a coalition of 28 states and scores of companies and industry groups. Or that fossil fuel interests and Republicans in Congress will keep trying to block it, whatever the courts decide.
The president’s plan to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the nation’s power sector could be undone within a matter of weeks by an unlikely bipartisan collection of senators that includes staunch Republican climate change deniers as well as Democrats who support the administration’s strategy.
What’s the problem? They want to force the government to assume that burning forests to generate electricity does not add carbon dioxide to the air but is instead “carbon neutral.” As long as forests that have been cleared are regrown rather than turned into, say, subdivisions, language proposed by the senators argues that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department should recognize the wood and other organic matter pulled from a forest “as a renewable energy source.”
If they succeed, from next year to 2030 they will have added a cumulative total of at least 830 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, according to calculations by the Partnership for Public Integrity, an energy policy analysis group, based on a model used by the government’s Energy Information Administration to assess the impact of the Clean Power Plan.
That amounts to 64 million additional tons of carbon dioxide a year, on average, about the same amount that was produced by forest fires in the lower 48 states in 2013. It makes for a big hole in a plan that is supposed to cut annual emissions from the power sector by some 250 million tons between now and 2030.
The proposal not to count carbon from biomass is the work of Maine’s two senators — Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent — who introduced it into the Senate version of the energy bill passed earlier this year. It has broad support, and passed by a unanimous voice vote, according to those speaking for the chairman and ranking member of the Senate’s energy committee.
“The Senate has strongly supported the benefits that biomass utilization can have, including instances in which it is a carbon-neutral source of energy,” they wrote in a statement. “Conversations about the amendment are expected to continue among the bill conferees, the amendment sponsors and other congressional colleagues as the energy bill moves through the conference process.”
While it is hard to handicap its chances, the biomass proposal could become law within weeks. Members of Congress are now working to reconcile the Senate’s bill with the one that passed in the House, which does not include this provision. Even if it fails to make it through, similar language has been attached to appropriations bills for the Interior Department, passed by both chambers and now undergoing reconciliation.