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More Handouts for Smokestacks and Clearcuts?

(Photo: vxla)


More Handouts for Smokestacks and Clearcuts?

(Photo: vxla)

I don't care if you're Republican or Democrat, Independent or Progressive, Libertarian or secessionist, you'd probably agree that one of government's top priorities is to bring 100 percent accountability and transparency to managing the tax dollars of hardworking Americans. While some of us might quibble about certain aspects of taxation, almost all of us would agree that any taxed wages of the American public must be invested exclusively in genuine and essential improvements to our nation. The economic downturn has created a political climate where voters of all stripes are united against wasteful and unnecessary government spending.

Each of the ruling parties, be they Democrats or Republicans, has the revival of the economy at the top of its list. The right appears adamant on its mandate to cut back on government spending and will block key legislation to prove its point. The left seems intent on investing in green jobs to put people back to work, stimulate the economy, combat climate change and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. How will they ever find common ground?

Here's one way: by stopping the diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars of “clean energy” taxpayer subsidies to polluting, greenhouse-gas-spewing, forest biomass power incinerators. What better way to accommodate the claimed fiscal conservancy of Republicans while advancing the professed environmental concerns of Democrats than by defunding a woefully inefficient electric power source that emits more CO2 smokestack emissions than coal – yes, coal – pollutes the air with nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, and threatens our nation's precious forests? Talk about win-win!

When someone says “clean energy,” what images come to mind? Solar panels sparkling in the sun? Windmills spinning in the breeze? Two images I bet you don't picture are smokestacks spewing toxic air pollutants and despoiled, clearcut forests. Well, you should, since over 35 percent of all so-called “renewable” electricity in the nation comes from the burning of biomass, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

The 1603 program of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, a k a the stimulus bill, has diverted $102,532,534 in cash grants toward the construction of nine biomass power incinerators from 2009 to December 2010. Section 1603 provides cash grants in lieu of investment tax benefits for up to 30 percent of the cost of construction of renewable energy facilities – rightfully including solar and wind installations, yet also heavily funding forest biomass power incineration.

Republicans: Want to cut some of the deadwood out of government spending? Look no further than biomass power incineration. Democrats: Looking to make sure your zero-waste, zero-emission solar and wind projects get well funded? Don't let dirty biomass drag you down.

There are currently 234 biomass power incinerators proposed for the United States – another 255 already operating – which, if all were funded and built (based on 30 percent of the $240 million it costs to build a typical bio-incinerator), would cost American taxpayers over $16 billion! That's no typo.

No one can deny that of all the “renewable” energy choices out there – solar, wind, small hydro and wave/tidal – there's only one (if it can even be considered “renewable”) that spews monstrous amounts of carbon dioxide, threatens public health with a deadly cocktail of air pollutants and counts on a never-ending supply of forest. Surely, Americans expect more from their clean energy tax dollars than biomass power incineration.

If we're really going to do more than just talk about addressing climate change, how about exclusively funding the technologies that actually lower carbon emissions over the coming decades – the timeframe climate scientists are telling us we have left to tackle climate change?

In May 2010, 90 scientists sent a letter to Congress on pending climate legislation with a reminder that, “the combustion of biomass replaces fossil emissions with its own emissions (which may even be higher per unit of energy because of the lower energy to carbon ratio of biomass).”

Massachusetts' state-commissioned Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study, or Manomet study, informs us that “forest biomass generally emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced.”

Climate scientists Mark E. Harmon and Timothy D. Searchinger, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) member William Moomaw state in a February 2011 letter to the Washington State legislature that, “burning biomass emits 150 percent the carbon dioxide of coal, and 300-400 percent the CO2 of natural gas, per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated.”

A report by Mary S. Booth of the Environmental Working Group warns that if we don't put the brakes on biomass power: “over the next 15 years about 4.7 billion tons of carbon will be generated from burning biomass, most of it from whole trees…. This massive pulse of uncounted carbon dioxide will effectively erase 80% of the reduction in CO2 emissions from the power sector that is at the heart of federal climate legislation.”

In their ability to store and sequester carbon dioxide, our living, growing forests are perhaps our greatest allies in the fight against climate change. The more we log, the more we disrupt the climate. Saving trees equals saving the climate. Should we really even need scientists to tell us this?

With all this concern about health care, can't we all agree that the priority renewable energy sources should be ones that don't threaten the health of Americans by emitting up to 75 toxic pollutants, including volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde and particulate matter? (According to studies by the American Cancer Society, there is no safe level of exposure to the latter of these pollutants.)

The American Lung Association sent a June 2009 letter to the House of Representatives cautioning that “burning biomass could lead to significant increases in emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide and have severe impacts on the health of children, older adults, and people with lung diseases.”

In October 2010, researchers from Children's Hospital Boston released a study covering every county in the contiguous US, demonstrating a “consistent correlation between adult diabetes and particulate air pollution,” or PM 2.5 – a largely unfilterable byproduct of burning biomass that can get deep into your lungs, into your bloodstream, into your organs – even at levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Burning biomass would “contribute to particulate air pollution emissions by increasing air pollution,” insists Physicians for Social Responsibility, “and therefore we oppose the construction of such plants.”

How about we all take a step back and ask ourselves: can clean energy ever come out of a smokestack?

Reasonable Americans everywhere agree that we have no choice but to both balance the budget and maintain the planet that makes life (and an economy) possible. Why not kill two birds with one stone and defund forest biomass power incineration?

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