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Massachusetts May Overlook Climate Impacts of Biofuels

Massachusetts is considering a plan that would classify wood pellets and other tree products as sources of renewable energy, allowing the logging industry to contribute to the state’s climate goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However, research shows that burning biomass for energy can actually make climate change worse by boosting carbon emissions, not reducing them — facts critics are using to oppose the plan.

Wood pellets used for biomass electricity generation.
Credit: USDA/flickr

The plan is part of proposed new rules updating the state’s standards for alternative energy, which are expected to be finalized in the coming months. If approved, the updated standards would subsidize biomass fuel and add it to the energy sources that contribute to a requirement for at least 5 percent of the state’s electricity to come from certain renewables by 2020.

Massachusetts is among the Northeast’s leaders in developing renewable and clean energy. In July, a new offshore wind farm — among the first in the U.S. — was proposed for the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It will be combined with large batteries to help meet a state mandate for the development of renewables.

But as the state continues its climate strategy to cut emissions from its power plants, it is being influenced by the logging industry, which wants biomass to be considered clean, renewable energy, according to the Boston Globe.

On its website, the Massachusetts Forest Alliance, one of the chief proponents of the biomass rules, says burning wood for electricity is carbon neutral because emissions are offset as trees used for fuel are replaced by new growth.

But a Climate Central analysis found in 2015 that switching to wood from coal increased carbon dioxide emissions at the Drax power station in rural England by 15 to 20 percent for each megawatt produced. Cutting trees for fuel also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide pollution that forests absorb.

It can take decades to replace trees chopped into wood pellets, research shows. Some hardwood forests can take up to 70 years to soak up as much carbon dioxide as they spew into the atmosphere after being chopped down.

Separately, a University of Michigan study found last year that biofuels are worse for the climate than gasoline.

A coalition of 14 groups, including the American Lung Association, the Environmental League of Massachusetts and the Partnership for Policy Integrity, is pointing to that science as ammunition to oppose the plan.

A biomass power plant in New Hampshire.
Credit: PSNH/flickr

“The draft regulations will allow increased greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts for decades, and DOER (the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources) has failed to conduct a life-cycle analysis of the climate change impacts resulting from incentivizing more biomass combustion,” the group said in comments submitted to state officials Monday.

The department did not return calls seeking comment Monday.

Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said the coalition opposes expanded use of wood biofuel in the state because it emits more carbon dioxide than fossil fuel and contributes to air pollution.

Biomass harvesting from forests also reduces soil nutrients and soil carbon, making it more difficult for forests to grow back and offset the climate pollution from burning wood pellets for energy, she said.

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