Oregon Ground Zero in Congress’ Attack on Science

By Henry Waxman and Erica Stock.

Former Congressman Henry A. Waxman spent 40 years serving in the US House of Representatives, serving as chairman and ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He was a lead author of the landmark Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, and currently serves as Chairman of Mighty Earth.

Erica Stock is the director of the Oregon Sierra Club, and has extensive experience as a grassroots organizer, fundraiser, natural resources policy analyst and activist. Erica is passionate about empowering local communities working hard to protect and restore their rivers, fish, wildlife, and wildlands.

What if we told you that the Republican Congress just passed legislation to promote renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions? Most astute – or even sentient – observers of Congress would laugh out loud, including the Republican leadership themselves.

Nonetheless, Republicans and some Democrats are touting the last appropriations deal as a win for renewable energy – even though the provision they’re touting is a huge step backwards for the climate, Oregon’s air quality, and the long term economic prospects for clean energy.

A policy rider buried in the bipartisan spending bill requires the federal government to treat all burning of trees for electricity (known as biomass energy) – as carbon-neutral or emissions-free. According to Congress, burning trees for electricity is now as clean as wind or solar power.

Unfortunately, actual scientists who have studied the issue have found that burning trees for electricity creates 50% more carbon pollution at the smokestack than coal, on average, per megawatt hour of energy. These policies are doubly bad because they drive the incineration of trees that, when living, continue to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and breathe out oxygen.

Powerful timber interests have long advocated for special treatment, arguing that trees eventually grow back, so it will all be okay. Trees are renewable, they say, and eventually all that carbon that was released will be recaptured.

There are many flaws to this logic. In places that lack sustainable forest management, there’s no guarantee that a forest, once cleared, will be allowed to grow back. And, introducing a whole new category of demand for forest products is likely to result in increased pressure and bigger harvests in perpetuity, reducing carbon sequestration while forests are alive. As a result, it will take decades or longer before the carbon released during combustion is recaptured. Our window of time to effectively mitigate climate change is much shorter.

The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board has been reviewing the research to provide concrete guidance on the impacts of biomass. Industry backers know that any honest scientific look at the evidence will show biomass electricity’s huge negative impacts on the environment. As a result, they’ve relied on the Republican Congress’ willingness to attack science to avoid being bound by any actual data.

Oregon is ground zero in this fight. Traditionally, mills and other wood product facilities in Oregon have burned their own wood waste for on-site heat and power, an environmentally-friendly use of biomass when small-scale and limited to waste products. And over the last several decades, Oregon as a whole has moved towards sustainable balance between conservation and a healthy forest products industry.

A sudden surge in demand for wood to burn would imperil this balance. The Boardman power plant in north-central Oregon is Exhibit A, a 550-megawatt behemoth whose owners are considering a transition to biomass after it retires as a coal-burner.

A 2016 report by the Oregon Sierra Club and Mighty Earth found that there is nowhere near enough logging or mill waste in the state to feed a plant the size of Boardman. Officials connected with the main wood supplier for Boardman have stated publicly that the trees and woody material would be sourced from national forests.

Ironically, shifting the plant to biomass will turn a dirty coal fired power plant into an even dirtier biomass plant. Oregon has so much wind and solar potential that we don’t need to consider fake solutions like biomass as we kick the coal habit.

But perhaps even more chilling is the signal this policy sends around the world. Rainforest countries could interpret this policy as not only an encouragement to burn forests for energy, but could call it a solution to climate change. Asian coal utilities trying to avoid a shift to truly clean sources of electricity may start to aggressively compete for wood raw materials to burn, not only from Oregon, but also from tropical rainforests such as Indonesia.

At some point, our nation will take real climate action. When that happens, it’s critical that it uses science to measure different fuels’ impacts – so we don’t face the absurd situation that burning wood somehow is considered as clean as solar or wind. Oregon’s Congressional delegation should use their credibility as representatives of a forest state that is considering a biomass power plant to rescind this policy and support real, forward-thinking measures that promote truly clean renewable energy and protect our forests.

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