SOURCE: Inside Climate News

DATE: July 13, 2020

SNIP: In rural Southern towns from Virginia to Texas, mill workers are churning out wood pellets from nearby forests as fast as European power plants, thousands of miles away, can burn them.

On this side of the Atlantic, new pellet plants are being proposed in South Carolina, Arkansas and other southern states. And Southern coastal shipping ports are expanding along with the pellet industry, vying to increase deliveries to Asia.

While the United States has fallen into a coronavirus-induced recession that dealt a blow to oil, gas, and petrochemical companies, for biomass production across the South, it’s still boom time.

The industry has exploded, driven largely by European climate policies and subsidies that reward burning wood, even as an increasing number of scientists call out what they see as a dangerous carbon accounting loophole that threatens the 2050 goals of the Paris climate agreement.

This month, the Environmental Protection Agency, acting at the direction of the U.S. Congress, is expected to propose securing that loophole with a new rule that details how burning biomass from forests can be considered carbon neutral, at least in the United States.

The industry wants to see regulations that will keep their businesses growing, including expanding U.S. energy markets that now barely exist. But some scientists and environmental groups argue that new EPA rules that are favorable to the industry would put the climate at further risk, along with forest ecosystems across biologically rich landscapes.

“Burning wood puts more carbon dioxide in the air right now, today, with certainty, than the fossil fuels you were burning,” said John Sterman, a professor of management and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has published peer-reviewed research on lifecycle carbon emissions from burning wood pellets.

To solve the climate crisis, he said, “emissions from fossil fuels need to go down rapidly, but it is equally important to keep the carbon in forests on the land.”.

For their part, the industry leaders believe they have science on their side, making a case that wood pellet production is barely putting a dent in the carbon-storage capacity of forests in the South.

Two years ago, almost 800 scientists wrote to the European Parliament, arguing that “cutting down trees for bioenergy releases carbon that would otherwise stay locked up in forests, and diverting wood otherwise used for wood products will cause more cutting elsewhere to replace them.”

They added, “Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries—as many studies have shown—even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.”

Given enough time, forests may pull enough carbon dioxide out of the air to make up for the electricity generation, Sterman acknowledged. But that’s not guaranteed; the forests also could be lost to development. And by removing trees now, he said, the industry is “taking trees that would have grown and taken even more carbon out of the air.”

In the meantime, he said, “you have made climate change worse. The sea level will be higher. There will be more extreme weather and more ocean acidification.”