Greens vs. Science: Duff Badgley's Unscientific Biomass Diatribe
The award for the most science-free editorial of the year goes to Duff Badgley, for his diatribe in the Seattle Times earlier this week, attacking Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark's support of biomass as a renewable source of energy.
Here is a sample of the rhetorical flourish that is substituted liberally in the place of science and data:
Biomass "presents lethal dangers to Washington state." It "is 'dirtier' than coal, stokes climate change, rains toxic pollutants on regional populations and would decimate our forests." It is associated with "a lethal brew of diseases."
None of these things are true and, ironically, the very sources Badgley cites say so. For instance, he claims:
"Biomass combustion emits more carbon-dioxide pollution than coal combustion, and twice as much as natural-gas combustion, according to the June, 2010 Manomet study commissioned by the state of Massachusetts."
This is simply false, and Manomet says so. Badgley seems only to have read the newspaper reports of this study and not the actual study. After news reports falsely reported this interpretation, Manomet released a statement saying biomass does, in fact, "lead to lower atmospheric greenhouse gas levels."
The reason is simple. Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere when they grow, so when they are burned, that carbon returns to the air, where it can be absorbed trees replanted after harvest. Badgley attacks Commissioner Goldmark for pointing this out, saying "Goldmark crazily contends that, since new growing trees recapture the carbon dioxide from burning wood, these emissions simply don't count as harmful climate pollution." But Badgley's contention is the crazy one. Indeed Manomet, the very study Badgley cites, says "While emissions from burning wood are initially higher than from fossil fuels, regrowing forests sequesters carbon, a process that eventually can yield greenhouse gas levels lower than would have resulted from continued burning of fossil fuels." Eventually can mean more than a decade, but climate change is a decades-long process, making Badgley’s short-term mindset counterproductive.
Further, many of the forests being considered to provide fuel for biomass plants are at high risk of forest fire. Those fires would have the effect of putting the carbon into the atmosphere, but would not replace energy from coal or natural gas, increasing the total atmospheric carbon.
Badgley also doesn’t realize that the EPA, who he claims opposes biomass, reversed itself this year on the issue, saying biomass energy is renewable, although they are continuing to study the issue.
The Washington state environmental community agrees, including biomass as a renewable source of energy in Initiative 937, which requires twenty percent of Washington's energy to come from renewable sources by 2020.
So too does the City of Seattle. Seattle Steam generates electricity using waste wood, using a simliar process to that being opposed by Duff. I haven't heard people complain that it "rains toxic pollutants on regional populations."
There are many other things wrong with the piece, but I will finish with this. Badgley claims that this new demand for biomass "could lead to radically expanded clear-cutting of our forests." This is nonsense.
A rough calculation shows that even if Duff's estimates are correct, and given his accuracy elsewhere in the piece that is questionable, the biomass needed for the new generator in Mason County would increase harvests in Washington by less than three percent over 2008 levels. How much is that? Even with that increase, 2008 would still be the lowest harvest level in the last two decades -- decades in which the amount of standing timber in Washington's forests actually increased.
Even this is wrong, because the wood being used for biomass isn't healthy, standing timber. It is either slash left on the ground or diseased and unhelathy forsests, likely to burn anyway. As a result, the increase in harvesting to meet the energy demand would be much lower. This is the real problem with biomass.
The reason we don't have more biomass plants is that it is an expensive energy source. The wood left on the ground after a timber harvest is of such low value that companies don't even pay people to bend over and pick it up. The only reason biomass is becoming popular now is to meet regulations created by the environmental community for renewable energy and because the federal government is handing out large taxpayer subsidies, making this expensive form of energy profitable. This is why we've criticized Goldmark's push for biomass energy in the past -- it doesn't make sense in the absence of these expensive taxpayer subsidies.
But bad science leads to bad environmental outcomes and Badgley's arguments are quite ill-informed. Ironically, Badgley cajoles Goldmark to "to embrace the science" regarding biomass. He ought to take his own advice.