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Burn a Tree to Save the Planet? The Crazy Logic Behind Biomass

It might seem crazy that anyone would think the incineration of wood and its byproducts are a green substitute for toxic fuels such as coal. Think again.

Fire up your chainsaw and cut down a tree. Not so you can decorate it for the Christmas holiday; so you can set it on fire to help combat global warming. That's right, burn a tree to save the planet. That's the notion behind biomass, the new (yet ancient) technology of burning wood to produce energy.

It might seem crazy that anyone would even consider the incineration of wood and its byproducts to be a green substitute for toxic fuels such as coal. Yet that's exactly what is happening all over the country, and it has many environmentalists scratching their heads in disbelief.

Wood waste, such as forest trimmings and other agricultural debris, is being used in numerous power plants across the country with the impression that it is a renewable, green resource.

"People get easily confused by biomass because it is always lumped in with other green technologies," said environmental activist and filmmaker Jeff Gibbs, who co-produced Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." "Burning our trees in the name of renewable energy to produce power is about as Machiavellian as it gets."

NASA's James Hansen says that the burning of coal is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic global warming, so any alternative fuel source must decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere if we are to put the breaks on climate change. Biomass, despite its label as a renewable energy source, does not solve the problem because burning trees actually emits a large amount of CO 2.

Proponents counter that biomass only releases as much CO2 as the trees absorb while growing in nature. So as long as replacement trees are grown at the same rate they are burned in incinerators, biomass will always be carbon neutral.

"Emissions from a biomass facility are substantially lower than those from fossil fuel-based energy sources," Matt Wolfe of Madera Energy, developer of the Pioneer Renewable Energy project, said in a public hearing in Massachusetts earlier this year. "Is biomass perfect? No, of course not," Wolfe added. "But you have to consider what the alternatives are. Low-emission, advanced biomass technology is a much cleaner source of power than coal or oil. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

An article in Science released last October attempted to debunk the myth that biomass is a good alternative to traditional coal and oil burning. The study, authored by climate scientists, claimed that when an existing forest is chopped and cleared to produce fuel, the ability of those harvested trees to absorb CO2 is eliminated entirely while the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere actually increases.

"The game is up," stated biomass skeptic Ellen Moyer, a principal of green engineering firm Greenvironment, after the release of the report. "The problem has been identified, and the clarion call for course correction has rung out around the world. The days of biomass burning ... are numbered and pending legislation needs to be corrected before perverse incentives to burn our forests are enshrined in law."

Moyer's proclamation that the jig is up may be a bit premature. Biomass is largely subsidized by state and federal governments, and with the help of the Obama administration seems to have a bright future as a significant source of energy in the United States. In fact, a recent federal report says that approximately 368 million tons of wood could be removed from our national forests every year. The current climate legislation hung up in Congress also includes biomass alongside wind and solar power as a source of renewable energy.

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