Democrats Side with Pruitt on Burning Trees

Some lawmakers are breaking with environmental groups on language that would designate biomass carbon neutral.

AP Photo/Jeff Barnard
March 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

Environmental groups are telling Capitol Hill allies to see the forest for the trees.

They are urging Democrats to oppose language in an upcoming spending bill to designate biomass—the process of burning trees and forest products to deliver electricity—as carbon-neutral, arguing that such a move will exacerbate climate change.

But some Democrats are bucking their private-sector patrons, instead signaling that they want to incentivize biomass. That position awkwardly allies the lawmakers with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, a controversial Cabinet member who squeezed through confirmation on a largely party-line vote.

Democrats and environmental groups have worked hand-in-glove in the era of President Trump. That cozy relationship, however, may soon be headed for a rare rough patch.

“I hope that we continue to recognize that it’s carbon-neutral. I think it’s in our domestic and the world’s interest to treat it that way,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, an appropriator and New Hampshire Democrat, told National Journal.

Both chambers are racing to meet a March 23 deadline for an omnibus appropriations package, aiming to avoid a sixth straight stopgap measure. No text has surfaced yet, but lawmakers insist that could happen by the end of the week.

However, fiscal 2018 bills that were produced months ago (and passed in the House) include language that would permanently designate biomass carbon-neutral, meaning that the practice doesn’t actually emit any carbon and power plants could count them as such in the future.

Biomass-energy production is growing exponentially after the European Union declared it carbon-neutral. EU power plants are fueled partially by burning biomass pellets, created through harvesting trees and wood products.

The spending bills are laden with controversial riders, and lawmakers will ultimately purge the vast majority of those this time. But the biomass rider has a leg up: Lawmakers from both parties have signed off on a similar measure twice in the past two years.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, staunchly disagree. Now, they’re planting a flag.

“Any legislative effort to broadly and permanently characterize biomass energy as ‘carbon-neutral’ is scientifically indefensible and will have large unintended effects on the climate,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and more than a dozen other groups said in a letter to top appropriators late last week.

“This troubling precedent may encourage many more permanent legislative riders. It is also particularly objectionable in an area of active scientific research and technological development where there is no scientific consensus supporting the assumptions that are to be mandated,” the letter continued.

But that plea doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction on Capitol Hill.

Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate energy panel, called the neutrality debate “complicated.” Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jeff Merkley, two of the fiercest allies of the environmental community, said they’d look into it.

And Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, fully backs the measure alongside Shaheen and others.

“The language has always required that—in order to achieve that carbon neutrality—the wood products have to be sustainably harvested,” King told National Journal. “We do very little replanting because it’s not necessary. In fact, in Maine [the forests] grow back so thick that you have to thin them in order to allow the larger trees to grow.”

That notion of sustainability hits at the heart of the ongoing political and scientific debate surrounding biomass. Congress has backed this concept in the past. Lawmakers, including Whitehouse and Merkley, approved language in last year’s funding bill that says biomass qualifies as carbon-neutral—“provided energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest use,” meaning that regrowth will restore the climate benefits of healthy forests. Now, the aim is to make that designation permanent.

The neutrality argument is rooted in the idea that burning biomass emits less carbon than coal and natural gas. On top of that, the theory goes, forests capture carbon and prevent the greenhouse gas from degrading the atmosphere, meaning the whole equation yields neutral carbon emissions.

The EPA, for its part, is moving forward with a campaign to scale back regulations on biomass.

“EPA has incorporated into its ongoing review of and improvement to Clean Air Act permitting programs generally a concerted effort to develop a range of options consistent with a carbon-neutral policy for biomass,” Pruitt told New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu last month in a letter. “By providing certainty for the treatment of biomass throughout the agency’s permitting decisions, the use of biomass energy will be bolstered.”

Biomass supporters say the process can help lessen the threat of wildfires by removing the dead, flammable forest products. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are continuing with their campaign to pressure lawmakers.

“This is a top priority of the environmental community,” Sami Yassa, a forests expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told National Journal. “Efforts to make this damaging provision permanent would severely undermine our efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the future.”

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