STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

Trump’s environmental agency agrees with the EU on one climate issue

What’s the problem?
What’s the problem?
Image: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk
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“I don’t know why he is still in office,” said Al Gore yesterday (April 24) at a speaking event in Washington DC.

The former US vice president was referring to Scott Pruitt, the current head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who is mired in scandals over his alleged misuse of public funds and, more importantly, accusations that he’s failing his job: to protect the environment.

Since he took office, Pruitt has been on a mission to roll back every US environmental regulation he can. He scrapped the Clean Power Plan, removed “climate change” from the EPA’s website, and set the US on course to be the only country on the planet that won’t be part of the Paris climate accords. The pace of change he wants to bring about is unprecedented. In this month alone, the EPA has issued a rollback of car-emissions standard, nixed protections for threatened species, and weakened the agency’s own ability to thoroughly consider scientific evidence on the many environmental issues it is responsible for.

There’s little overlap between Pruitt’s environmental policies and those of pretty much every other country in the world. In one strange corner of energy and climate policy, however, Pruitt seems to align with one of the globe’s greatest climate champions, the European Union: both agree that burning wood is “carbon neutral.”

“Today’s announcement grants America’s foresters much-needed certainty and clarity with respect to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass,” Pruitt reportedly said at an event with forest-industry leaders in the state of Georgia. (Recently felled trees are typically included in the category of “biomass,” a catchall phrase used to differentiate currently living or recently deceased plants and animals from fossil fuels, which come from the remains of those that lived millions of years ago.)

There’s no arguing that burning wood releases carbon dioxide. Pruitt and the EU both make the case that those emissions are negligible, because they are recaptured by trees that grow to replace the ones chopped down to fuel fires. However, experts on using biomass to generate energy agree that, under most conditions, burning wood cannot be considered carbon neutral.

The carbon dioxide released by burning trees, some experts say, is not recaptured back by new trees for many years. In that period, the greenhouse gases released will have contributed to heating up the planet—a process that cannot be negated by the new trees. In addition, felling a tree tends to release carbon that’s been trapped by the soil surrounding the plant.

Moreover, transporting wood from where it’s harvested to the place it’s burned almost always generates further greenhouse-gas emissions. The UK, for example, gets wood shipped from North Carolina in the US to be burned at the Drax Power Plant—nearly 4,000 miles (about 6,400 km). But under current rules, the UK gets to claim that the energy produced by burning American timber at the Drax plant is net-zero carbon emissions.

To be sure, there is a fraction of biomass, such as waste wood chips or agricultural waste, which if not used will eventually degrade and create emissions anyway. But it’s a small fraction of the biomass used to produce energy today.

According to a 2017 report, burning wood can produce more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than burning coal. If that calculation is accurate, the EU’s current policy means the region will fail or, at best, struggle, to hit its stated climate goals while relying on biomass for vast amounts of its energy.

The new US policy likewise worsens the country’s climate-mitigation position. When he announced the new US stance that wood is carbon neutral, Pruitt seems to have not only ignored the existing scientific literature, but marginalized his own science-advisory board, which hadn’t yet released its assessment on the matter. That said, the announcement is not surprising, given Pruitt’s history of scorning good evidence and, especially, the fact that supposed the climate-championing EU has been making the same claim for many years.