Recent biomass studies misconstrued, inaccurate

By Anna Austin
Mainstream media outlets have largely misinterpreted a biomass sustainability and carbon policy report released in June by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, according to study contributor Pinchot Institute for Conservation.

In fact, the rapidly spreading assertion that woody biomass is dirtier than coal "couldn't be farther from the truth," Pinchot President Al Sample said during a media advisory call on June 16, held to clear up erroneous news stories regarding the report's indications of woody biomass power plant environmental consequences in comparison with coal power plants.

The six-month study, titled "Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study," addressed a wide array of social, scientific, economic and technical issues related to the use of forest biomass for energy in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources commissioned the study in response to citizen opposition to four proposed biomass power projects in the state. Pinchot's main role in the study was to provide a review of regulations and standards needed to ensure the sustainability of forest resources in light of potential increases in wood consumption for bioenergy.

Sample said initially, an Associated Press story mischaracterized the study, and then countless other news outlets continued to repeat the same inaccuracies. "It was a gross simplification that resulted in a misinterpretation of the study's overall conclusions," Sample said.

As for the data that influenced the misconstrued assumptions, Sample said when narrowly interpreted, the study suggests that when looking at the smokestack emissions, woody biomass emits slightly more CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced. That does not at all mean it is more polluting or inferior to coal plants, however, because it doesn't take into consideration any type of life-cycle analysis. "That [wrong] impression surprised a number of us who contributed to the study," he said.

Sample emphasized that Pinchot is providing clarification on the matter because it is a nonprofit research institution that serves to provide accurate and comprehensive information to policymakers and that some groups may benefit unfairly from the widely circulated misreading. "We need to ensure that decisions [by policymakers], particularly on wood biomass energy in the U.S., are based on fully comprehensive and accurate data, as we have the American Power Act and a number of other things in play," Sample said.

He added that the study is strong though, and provides good analyses and information that was not previously available.

Adding insult to injury, the Environmental Working Group released a report June 16 that associates biomass power with "clear-cutting trees," wrongly claiming that state and federal incentive policies would soon support such activities.

Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves said prior to the report he had not been aware of the organization, and that its assertions have no relevance to how power is generated from biomass today in the U.S. or to how it will be in the foreseeable future.