Lobby’s Declaration that Tree-Burning is Carbon Neutral is Based on Pseudoscience

tree-burningIndustrial tree-burning to generate electricity produces more carbon pollution per megawatt-hour than coal. But a powerful Washington, DC lobbying group – the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) – wants to recognize tree-burning as a zero-pollution alternative to wind and solar.

The notion is actually under consideration by Congress and could soon be passed into law.

tree-burningA Letter to Mr. Tenny

To better understand the idea, we sent a letter of inquiry to Mr. David Tenny, NAFO’s president and CEO, about claims made on the organization’s website that appear to be based more on opinion than science-based fact.

We followed-up twice by phone. First, we left a voice mail for Mr. Tenny. The second time, we spoke to Operations Manager Amy Tauzin and sent her the letter directly. She said she would make sure Tenny saw it. As of the date of this post, we have received no response.

Facts or Opinions?

Here are a few of NAFO’s website statements that appear to be highly dubious opinions masquerading as facts. On the webpage “Beware of biomass advocacy posing as science,” NAFO states:

EPA’s science panel on biogenic carbon emissions, after reviewing the available literature and the views of a variety of science experts, has determined that it is appropriate when measuring net biomass carbon emissions to use changes in forest carbon across broad geographic scales over a 100 year timeframe and to consider the impact of markets that stimulate forest investment, replanting and retention.”

But the full EPA Science Advisory Board sent the biogenic carbon panel’s report back for revisions, citing substantial scientific inadequacy of the timeframe. Each page of the report states, “Science Advisory Board (SAB) Draft Report (2-8-16) for Quality Review – Do Not Cite or Quote.  This draft has not been reviewed or approved by the chartered SAB, and does not represent EPA policy.”

How is this statement not misleading if it hasn’t received final approval? 

On the webpage “Federal Policy Should Clearly Recognize the Full Carbon Benefits of Forest Bioenergy,” NAFO makes several statements that are questionable:

Biomass markets, like other forest products markets, enable private forests to provide sustainable carbon benefits over the long term. Those private forests represent 56% of all U.S. forests which in total offset 13% of total U.S. CO2 emissions.”

tree-burningBut if a forest is cut down and burned, it would no longer be available to act as a carbon pollution sink until and unless it regrows – which can take decades. Why is NAFO’s statement not false?

Here’s another:

“Robust biomass markets help conserve forest land for rural jobs, recreational activities and wildlife protection.”

What data underlie this assertion? We’ve asked Mr. Tenny to provide citations to scientific studies or other data sources, but so far we have been met with silence.

On the same webpage, NAFO states:

Key elements of a simple approach to regulating biomass include: Recognition that biomass energy will not increase carbon in the atmosphere so long as overall forest carbon is stable or increasing.”

This language is familiar – because nearly identical language shows up in the House Appropriations bill:

“The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency shall base agency policies and actions regarding air emissions from forest biomass including, but not limited to, air emissions from facilities that combust forest biomass for energy, on the principle that forest biomass emissions do not increase overall carbon dioxide accumulations in the atmosphere when USDA Forest Inventory and Analysis data show that forest carbon stocks in the U.S. are stable or increasing on a national scale”

NAFO’s website calls for:

Use of U.S. Forest Inventory Analysis data and established science rather than complex modeling and assumptions.”

What U.S. Forest Inventory Analysis Data supports the statement “Biomass energy will not increase carbon in the atmosphere so long as overall forest carbon is stable or increasing?”

Again, on the same webpage, NAFO states: “Key elements of a simple approach to regulating biomass include:

“Recognition that forest products manufacturing residuals, harvest residuals and thinnings do not increase and can even reduce overall carbon in the atmosphere.”

This declaration seems to oppose basic laws of physics. Burning materials adds carbon to the atmosphere.

Say One Thing, Do Another?

Burning forests in the tropics is a major source of carbon pollution. But when tree-burning happens in the United States to generate electricity, the National Alliance of Forest Owners and its friends in Congress argue that’s carbon neutral. It sends a terrible signal internationally, just as we are trying to persuade other countries to protect their forests.

Perhaps Mr. Tenny can help us to understand how any of this makes sense.


Scott Peterson is executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from clean energy philanthropies and donors.