Between the Lines: Biomass Bully Pulpit

To get a sense of the depth of frustration biomass developers are feeling toward both environmental activists (at least those activists who oppose efforts to build large wood-burning electricity plants in Massachusetts) and the Patrick Administration, all you have to do is read the trade press. There, in periodicals such as Biomass Power and Thermal, you will find, for example, the anti-biomass activists in Greenfield, Russell and Springfield regularly decried, portrayed not as the concerned citizens they claim to be, but as “bullies.”

In a April 29 article, published under the headline “Beating up on Biomass,” Biomass Power and Thermal‘s Lisa Gibson, an associate editor for the trade publication, describes the latest turn in the fight for and against biomass development in Massachusetts: “Ever the biomass bullies, opposition groups in Massachusetts are continuing their organized efforts to stymie development in the commonwealth, this time asking for a three-year moratorium on biopower? A number of opposition groups collaborated on the petition including Concerned Citizens of Franklin County and Concerned Citizens of Russell, but inquiries about the petition went unanswered by both groups. The petition itself says signed copies can be delivered to Massachusetts Forest Watch, but founder Chris Matera declined to comment on it.”

No doubt, the mere mention of Matera’s name and Massachusetts Forest Watch is enough to incite anger among many of Gibson’s readers. Matera has done more than anyone to draw public attention to the possible shortcomings of woody biomass as a renewable energy source, criticizing the proposed development of biomass plants first and foremost for its potential devastation of the state’s forests and accusing the state Department of Conservation and Recreation of rewriting the rules for logging—specifically, increasing harvest rates on state public lands—in order to provide enough fuel for the proposed biomass plants dotting the state. Matera was also among the first to successfully raise objections to the longstanding claim—or, at least, unchecked assumption—that biomass power is “carbon neutral.”

Indeed, to many of Gibson’s readers, Matera and a few other Valley-based activists—Jana Chicoine in Russell; Michael Ann Bewsee in Springfield; Janet Sinclair in Greenfield—are only the most identifiable faces in a large and growing movement that few merchant power developers could have expected back in 2002, when Massachusetts first proposed plans to subsidize biomass as a renewable energy.

In the face of mounting opposition, the Patrick Administration called for a moratorium on permits for proposed biomass plants in 2009, turning to the environmental consultants at Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences to do a science-based accounting of biomass.

Manomet’s findings, widely decried within the industry, seemed to pop the biomass balloon, no doubt contributing to the tension now leaking into otherwise generally unemotional trade magazines.

“It all started in December 2009, when the state commissioned a study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences,” Gibson writes in her April 29 article, continuing to describe the result with fair accuracy: “The findings of the study, released in June 2010, explain a debt-then-dividend carbon analysis of woody biomass, saying it initially releases more carbon dioxide than coal per unit of energy, but pays off its carbon debt as forests regrow and that carbon is resequestered.”

In other words, wood burns fast but grows slowly.

The trouble for the industry has been finding a counter-argument to the Manomet findings that can be so quickly summarized.

With the release by the Patrick Administration of rules tying further subsidy of biomass development to higher performance standards in terms of forest protection, emissions and efficiency, industry officials have sounded even more alarmed in recent weeks, complaining that the new rules are unfair to investors who made commitments in a far different regulatory climate. David P. Tenny, head of the National Association of Forest Owners, a group aggressively promoting biomass, issued a statement urging the Obama Administration not to follow the Bay State: “This week, Massachusetts issued proposed regulations that effectively shut the door on renewable biomass energy in that state.

“This appears to be what officials wanted when they initiated a study on biomass energy that limited the area and timeframe considered in a way that significantly skewed the outcome. The flawed study resulted in a flawed policy.”

As irritated as biomass proponents may be with Massachusetts right now, they should have no beef with the activism that may have compelled the Patrick Administration to propose stricter rules. Biomass developers should beware portraying themselves as victims of public opposition; today’s “bullies” may be tomorrow’s customers.

Author: Tom Vannah

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