Bio Mess

Don’t judge clean energy by its cover

If a tree falls in the woods, is it biomass? Yes. But in all honesty, if a bear shits in the woods, that’s biomass too.

In Eugene, it seems  the word “biomass” is synonymous with burning trees in a plant, but the term is much broader than that. Biomass energy can come from more sources than just burning wood. That includes poo.

Biomass, biofuel and bioenergy are the new buzzwords for clean, green energy — but just because a word has bio in it doesn’t make it ecofriendly. Just what bioenergy projects are, and how good they are for the environment are issues that have gotten mixed up in politics and carbon calculations. The Seneca Sustainable Energy cogeneration plant slated to begin burning woody biomass — and perhaps whole trees — on the north side of Eugene at the end of 2010 is a welcome green energy project to some, but an ill-conceived source of toxic air and greenhouse gases to many others.

All that glitters is not biomass

According to Mark Harmon, an Oregon State University professor of forest science, “the problem is people are using a general term for a specific word use. Wood is a form of biomass,” he says, “but biomass just means ‘living mass.’”

When you’re talking about biomass, Harmon, who studies decomposition and carbon dynamics in forests, says, “Soil is living; dead things are living. They aren’t living in the original sense, but there are living things in them.”

Biomass can be everything from all biologically created stuff to just the living part of that stuff, he says. It includes byproducts like straw from the grass seed industry, manure from cattle, trash at the dump and even human waste.

Biofuels are fuels derived from biomass. Fossils fuels technically are derived from biomass, but they don’t get to be called biofuels. They’re a little too dead, like millions of years dead. You might indeed be pouring a tyrannosaurus rex into your car’s tank, though more likely it’s a bunch of plankton from the aptly named Carboniferous period. That biomass was transformed over millions of years by geological processes into basic hydrocarbons. We use fossils fuels millions of times faster than the planet can make them, which is why these fuels — coal, crude oil and natural gas — are nonrenewable resources.

Biomass fuels (biofuels), on the other hand, are much more quickly renewed, in a relative sense. But that’s where things get tricky. The branches and leaves of an old-growth tree that was cut down and turned into lumber, which would otherwise go on a slash pile and be burned, can be used as biofuel in a biomass burning plant. Technically, that’s renewable. But it takes hundreds of years to grow an old-growth forest, and before it can be renewed, the endangered species that live there would be wiped out.

Seneca Corp makes the argument on its website that old-growth forests “create carbon dioxides and absorb oxygen from the atmosphere.” Seneca argues that “a forest practice that maximizes growth will also maximize oxygen creation.” In other words, cutting down trees and regrowing them is better for the atmosphere than leaving them standing.

Harmon says the argument that the carbon cycle in a forest gets down to growing trees reduce carbon and older trees contribute carbon was disproved 30 years ago. “I’m amazed that anyone’s pulling that thing out.”

EW would ask Seneca a little more about this, but Todd Payne, Seneca project manager, said the company was “not available” for an interview.

The 18.8-megawatt Seneca electricity plant is specifically aimed at woody biomass, and the company has said it will burn its logging slash piles. The company writes on a “Benefits of the Plant” handout that “by-products (bark, sawdust and shavings)” from its mills will make up approximately 75 percent of the biomass. It continues, “Since this project will reduce by-products sold to other companies, truck hauling trips will be reduced by two-thirds.”

Slash, it should be noted, needs to be trucked in from logging sites to the plant, and since the plant was conceived, the question of whether it will burn whole trees to create electricity is causing a furor.

The sheet also says the plant will create 11 jobs once it is complete. It touts there are 90 craftspeople building the facility, but the company hired for the job is from Sherwood, Ore., not Lane County.

Seneca’s website also says that it currently sells these byproducts to other businesses, including Lane Forest Products and Rexius. Some of the byproducts also go to Oregon-based Bear Mountain Forest Products to be made into wood pellets for home heating. These businesses will lose this supply, which could drive up the price of forest byproducts, costing local businesses more for their supplies and homeowners more to heat their homes.

Haste makes waste

Did Lane County move too quickly when it let Seneca jump on the biomass burning bandwagon? Seneca got millions in federal tax incentives; less than a year after Lane Regional Air Protection Agency (LRAPA) approved its permit, the plant is nearing completion, and it turns out that the Environmental Protection Agency says biomass burning might not be so clean after all.

The EPA is engaged in a process to create a regulatory scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act and it is gathering information on the issue of biomass burning to determine whether calling it “carbon neutral” is still justified. According to the recently released report by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, feeding a biomass plant whole (live) trees will increase the carbon debt and it would take decades for a plant relying mainly on whole trees to become carbon neutral. The Manomet report was commissioned by Massachusetts when that state began to question whether biomass burning was truly clean energy and temporarily stopped permitting its biomass plants. The report focuses on the carbon cycle of biomass harvested from actively managed, natural forests.

In June, Rep. Peter DeFazio and other members of the Oregon delegation joined more than 60 members of Congress in writing a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson demanding that the agency maintain biomass burning’s rating as carbon neutral because of its potential as a renewable energy source and for creating jobs and projects in rural communities.


Samantha Chirillo, co-director of Cascadia’s Ecosystem Advocates

In the press release, DeFazio calls recycling wood waste from public forests to create local energy and rural jobs “a no-brainer.” And he calls environmental groups fighting to classify biomass burning as a pollutant “misguided.”

Samantha Chirillo, co-director of Cascadia’s Ecosystem Advocates, recently returned from a lobbying trip to D.C. as part of the grassroots “Anti-Biomass Incineration and Forest Protection Campaign.” She says, “The failure to account for carbon emissions is going to basically mean that biomass is gaining a major advantage over real, clean renewable energy sources, and we’re going to see the devastation of forests as a result of incinerators getting subsidies.”

A bioenergy plant by any other name …

Burning woody forest debris and sawmill byproducts isn’t the only bioenergy game in town. If you’re gassing up at SeQuential Biofuels, then you’re using biomass to power your car. Lane County already has several bioenergy facilities and has high hopes for another one that wouldn’t depend on logging.

Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission, aka the sewage treatment plant, has been generating electricity from methane gas for years. MWMC uses an anaerobic digestion-type system to break down some of its biosolids to create methane gas, which provides about 55 percent of the plant’s electricity as well as heat used in the operating of the facility. Excess methane is burned off. In essence, MWMC is using your poop for power.

Over at Short Mountain landfill, the other kind of solid waste you produce is also generating power. The crap Lane County throws away that isn’t recycled goes to Short Mountain, where it breaks down and produces methane gas that’s converted to electricity for Emerald People’s Utility District (EPUD). The project started in the 1980s, and, ironically, the clean power doesn’t qualify for the new federal subsidies.

Mike McKenzie Bahr, Lane County community and economic development coordinator, is the driving force behind a proposed bioenergy park in Junction City that would produce energy from grass straw, a byproduct of the grass seed industry, and other wastes, and would involve no burning. The park is one in a proposed string of such facilities up the Willamette Valley that would produce energy from leftovers from industries like wine making or food wastes. As at MWMC, the energy would be produced by anaerobic digestion.

Milo Mecham of Lane County Council of Governments says the proposed park has a business plan that demonstrates the project’s viability. “We are now looking for the investors who might be willing to take on the project,” he says. Though the proposed Junction City project does not call for using logging slash and debris from forest thinning projects, those materials can also be anaerobically digested to produce power, according to the Intermountain CHP (Combined Heat and Power) Center. Like Seneca’s plant, the Junction City plant would be a cogeneration plant, meaning along with energy, the heat produced will also be put to use.

Clean energy is in the eye of the beholder

So what does it matter if logging slash is burned or if it’s anaerobically digested, if the process is carbon neutral either way? Seneca says on its information sheet, “Woody biomass lessens greenhouse gas emissions when it replaces fossil fuels, because live, carbon-sequestering trees balance the carbon dioxide released when woody biomass is burned.”

The burning of woody biomass at the plant will produce electricity for EWEB and the heat produced will be replacing the natural gas Seneca has been using to create steam to treat lumber in its kilns. The natural gas industry also bills itself as a clean fuel as well as a bridge fuel that moves us away from fossil fuels to renewables. But Seneca writes, “Using this fossil fuel currently releases 3,500 tons of carbon per year, which will be reduced to zero once the project starts up.”

If Seneca is releasing zero carbon, then why, you might ask, did the company need to get a permit to release pollution into its already problematic west Eugene neighborhood? The carbon math isn’t that simple.

Mark Harmon of OSU says, “Over time, regardless of what happens, whatever you’re doing, if that’s repeated over and over, that’s the cycle. The carbon goes out; the carbon goes back in over a long period of time. They’re carbon neutral. That’s the whole argument.”

But, he says, here’s the dilemma: You have fossil fuel carbon, carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the land. You have carbon in the ocean too, but that’s not as much of an issue when it comes to biomass burning. “Things like biomass harvest can actually affect that balance between the land and the atmosphere,” Harmon says.

It’s not that the idea of carbon cycling is wrong, “Essentially they can harvest carbon, burn it and it will cycle back into the forest,” Harmon says. “Will that only work for biomass? It works for everything. People are being a little selective about things.”

According to LRAPA, Seneca will release about 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year into the air. Lisa Arkin of Oregon Toxics Alliance says that other pollutants include 185.61 tons a year of nitrogen oxides. OTA cites the EPA, which says nitrous oxides causes respiratory problems and aggravates heart disease, can damage lung tissue and cause premature death. In one year Seneca will release 200.89 tons of carbon monoxide, 1.7 tons of formaldehyde and 13.15 tons of PM 10 and PM 2.5, the same sort of particulate matter that made field burning a medical issue in Lane County.

“The body of burden of these toxics is on people living in west Eugene,” Arkin says. She points out that while slash piles wouldn’t have the scrubbers and other cleaning technology of the Seneca plant, the burning would occur seasonally, farther away from populated areas, and the burn locations would change, depending on the logging rotation. The Seneca plant will pollute the air year-round, and Arkin says, it doesn’t have to stop its burning on bad air days, the way people have to stop using their woodstoves.

Arkin adds that if Seneca does go out of compliance with LRAPA’s clean air rules, “There’s not a medium to make sure they’re in compliance immediately.”

When the now-defunct Hynix plant was found to have been exceeding limits in its air pollution permit issued by LRAPA, the company was fined $800. It was later allowed to increase the amount of the toxic gas it could legally release from 1.8 to 5 tons, putting it back into compliance.

LRAPA is not charged with preventing companies from releasing any pollution. Its permits keep companies from illegally polluting. Companies like Seneca can pollute Eugene’s air to the levels that their air pollutant discharge permits allow.

Right now Seneca’s carbon release is considered carbon neutral because it will cycle back. A the study by the Manomet Center emphasizes the complexity of the carbon debt cycle, and that the neutrality of a biomass plant depends on the lifecycle of the biomass being used, the energy technology, the fossil fuel technology it replaces and the way landowners choose to manage their forests.

Biomass burning is not always immediately carbon neutral, the study says. It can take five years or many decades to pay off the carbon debt, depending on how the forest is managed.


Doug Heiken, Oregon Wild

Forest management is  an issue for Doug Heiken of the conservation group Oregon Wild.  Heiken says one could “legitimately question how sustainable Seneca’s short-rotation clearcutting practices are.”

Seneca’s purportedly intended fuels, wood waste from the mill and slash piles, he says, “are byproducts in a sense, but byproducts of industrial forestry which is not a sustainable process the way it’s being done in Western Oregon these days.”

Heiken says, “If the public is going to subsidize biomass use, the public should be getting something for it.”

He adds, “Creating clearcuts, polluting streams, killing salmon and killing spotted owls are not something the public gets a big benefit from.”

Though cautiously supportive of some forms of biomass energy, as well as Sen. Ron Wyden’s “Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act” that calls for thinning Oregon’s forest east of the Cascades and potentially using some of those thinned trees for biomass energy, Oregon Wild also warns that the pressure to use trees for energy could impact forest management. “If we make Seneca protect their streams or implement a longer cutting cycle,” says Heiken, “there might be pressure to not make those changes because of the need to produce energy.”

Wyden’s eastside forest bill brings up that question Seneca has not been willing to answer: Will the plant burn whole trees? If Seneca used whole trees and increases the carbon debt and it takes decades for the plant to become carbon neutral, then opponents wonder not only how clean that energy is for Eugene, but what will happen to Lane County’s forests? The Manomet report says, based on its assessment of Massachusetts, “if demand increases due to the expansion of electric power plants, it will almost certainly be accompanied by increases in whole-tree harvesting due to the limited supply of other forest biomass and the cost advantages of whole-tree method.”

Samantha Chirillo says, “Across Oregon, it looks like these incinerators are to maximize production and maximize profits for industry,” adding that contrary to claims the trees are worth more as boards than as wood chips, the market is favoring chips over two-by-fours.

“The main issue with whole trees is really not whether or not to process whole trees versus not whole trees but whether you are processing a byproduct of another activity,” Heiken says. Rather than logging trees just to burn them, “taking the by-products of what we hope is good restoration,” he says.

At this stage of the game, while conservationists debate logging issues and the EPA weighs the carbon issue, the Seneca cogeneration plant is a done deal. Weekly updates on Seneca’s website mark the progress of the construction. But Arkin says here in Eugene, the fact remains, “You’re poisoning the community to generate electricity.”