Conservation Currents

And Now For the Rest of the Story

November 2010

By Don Wilson

I have an “F” in science, says your child. How can this be? You are an honor roll student, you say. I don’t know, all I know is I have an “F” in science. As a matter of fact, teacher says we all do! I hate that jerk anyhow and I don’t like science either!

A couple of nervous phone calls later you’re sitting before the teacher’s desk.

No. No. No. Your child doesn’t have an “F” in science, says the teacher. I gave the class a test designed to evaluate their general knowledge of the subject matter we will be covering. None of the kids did well but I won’t be using this test for grading purposes. It is just a planning tool I use to evaluate areas of concern as I develop my curriculum.

A few more facts at the beginning of the story would have painted a different picture.

Manomet study finds carbon emissions from biomass worse than coal, reads a headline some folks have cited recently in discussing the proposed Pownal biomass facility.

How can that be, I wondered? Burning wood is carbon-neutral. But rather than deny, or accept, the claim, off to the website of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences I went, where I found the original report, an executive summary and two press releases – all told 200 plus pages of information. The study itself is very technical. The narrative is a crooked path involving old assumptions, current practices, conventional wisdom and new test results regarding burning wood. It is a comprehensive and enlightening read if you can stick with it.

My technical digester can only handle so much, so between reads I shifted to the executive summary and the subsequent press releases for some help. This was where things got interesting.

It seems both the Manomet organization and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) have concerns about how the Manomet study and DOER conclusions are being represented in the press.

The Manomet Center states their intentions for the study were not an indictment of the biomass industry, and in fact it is not. It is a very well-researched, objective presentation of the impacts of the use of wood for energy both on our forest resources and total greenhouse gas emissions. It explores how forest management and harvest intensity affect carbon storage over time – in fact, over the long periods of time forests need to grow. (Carbon sequestration is absolutely a long term initiative.)

The MA DOER press release notes that “under the Global Warming Solutions Act, Massachusetts is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the economy 80 percent by 2050.” The Manomet study models, however, indicate that the use of biomass to produce energy results in high carbon releases and low carbon sequestration at the beginning of the cycle. For some scenarios, this frontloading means that, in the period 2010 through 2050, biomass would produce more carbon than fossil fuels will. Extend the models to 2100, however, and for most scenarios, the use of biomass produces significantly less net carbon than most fossil fuels.

The Manomet sudy goes on to suggest this timeline could be accelerated and makes several recommendations to this end, including using best practices in the woods, using only certified wood products from those sources, monitoring timber stand densities and carbon sequestration ratios, and implementing “carbon bank” policies for landowners.

Some of these practices are already observed by responsible forestry professionals and landowners. Many are not new here in Vermont.

Now you know the rest of the story. If we are going to have this debate, let’s have it with the facts please.

Don Wilson is the chairperson of the Bennington County Conservation District, whose mission is promoting rural livelihoods and protecting natural resources in southwestern Vermont.