Biomass study cracking under pressure


One of the authors of a fundamentally flawed biomass study released last week now says that the study’s conclusions were reported incorrectly in the press. Most media outlets reported that the Massachusetts study showed that biomass plants are worse for the environment, or “dirtier,” than coal, but actually that “couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said Al Sample, president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, which helped research the report.

Sample spoke to reporters a day after the report was released and had already created a virtual firestorm in the media. Here is an excerpt from Biomass Magazine’s coverage of his remarks:

Sample said initially, an Associated Press story mischaracterized the study, and then countless other news outlets continued to repeat the same inaccuracies. “It was a gross simplification that resulted in a misinterpretation of the study’s overall conclusions,” Sample said.

As far as the data that influenced the misconstrued assumptions, Sample said when narrowly interpreted, the study suggests that when looking at the smokestack emissions, woody biomass emits slightly more CO2 emissions per unit of energy produced. That does not at all mean it is more polluting or inferior to coal plants, however, because it doesn’t take into consideration any type of life-cycle analysis or other harmful emissions that coal emits and biomass does not. “That [wrong] impression surprised a number of us who contributed to the study,” he said.

So in effect, the media took one very small aspect of the study and blew it up to much greater conclusions than were actually contained in the study. Well, wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened, but the stakes are especially high, as Sample acknowledges, because the biomass industry could be damaged if the study goes unchallenged.

SolveClimate also has a good rundown of the new developments, including extensive comments from Bob Cleaves, the CEO of the Biomass Power Association:

The concern from the biomass industry is that the study’s statement on coal, which in contrast was “in lights” and grabbed national headlines, is being cited as an authoritative position.

“If people perceive biomass as cutting trees down to make power, I think it’s going to be increasingly hard to grow the biomass sector in this country,” Cleaves said.

And according to Cleaves, there’s “no way” the nation would be able to meet ambitious renewable energy goals without it.

As Cleaves says, the misleading impact of the study can’t be blamed entirely on the media. The study itself, which can be found here, spends a lot of time on the claim that biomass emits more greenhouse gases than coal and creates the general impression that biomass is worse for the environment. In contrast, the benefits of biomass plants that use wood waste, which is actually how most biomass plants operate, are buried toward the end of the study.

We are glad to see one of the study’s authors backtrack from the study, or at least the popular perceptions of the study. But it’s important to note that few, if any, mainstream media outlets have reported on Pinchot’s backtracking. Instead, they’ve let their inaccurate headlines from last week stand.

It goes to show that anyone who supports the biomass industry — and its benefits for the country, the environment and timber communities — needs to push back as strong as possible to ensure this study does not go unanswered.