New York Times backtracks on biomass


The biomass news just keeps coming. It’s been more than a week now since a fundamentally flawed study was released in Massachusetts, and in the days since, the study has been soundly refuted by the Biomass Power Association and the National Alliance of Forest Owners, and one of the report’s authors, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, even backtracked from public perceptions of the report.

Then, over the weekend, the New York Times weighed in with a very misleading and skewed story on biomass. While the story does include arguments in favor of biomass, it spends much more time on the opposition’s arguments and strangely, seems to swallow the previous reporting on the Massachusetts study, hook line and sinker, even though one of the report’s authors had already publicly discredited that reporting.

On Monday, the lead author of the Massachusetts study, the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, took the extraordinary step of also distancing itself from the media’s reporting on the study. This was no doubt a reaction to the New York Times’ misleading story.

Manomet released a long and detailed statement describing how the media had got it wrong and that in fact, the whole “burning wood is worse than coal” idea is just incorrect.

One commonly used press headline has been ‘wood worse than coal’ for GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions or for ‘the environment.’ This is an inaccurate interpretation of our findings, which paint a much more complex picture. While burning wood does emit more GHGs initially than fossil fuels, these emissions are removed from the atmosphere as harvested forests re-grow.

We appreciate Manomet’s honesty, and certainly the press may share a little blame in how the Manomet study was interpreted, but not nearly as much as Manomet says. As we’ve noted before, the Manomet Center wrote the study, and they need to take responsibility for the fact that the study itself was misleading and created the general impression that biomass is bad for the environment, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Manomet seems to concede as much in its exhaustive “clarification” on the study. If the study was fair and clear to begin with, why would Manomet need to issue such a long statement in response to its own study? Shouldn’t the study’s conclusions stand on their own? It casts doubt on everything Manomet wrote.

As a coup de grace of sorts, the New York Times reporter, no doubt chastened by criticism, decided to do a follow-up Q & A on Tuesday with what do you know…..the leaders of the Manomet Center!

In the Q & A, the Manomet leaders acknowledge again that headlines about their study, such as “Manomet: Biomass Isn’t Green” and “Biomass Benefits Refuted,” were wrong. But if they were really so concerned about inaccurate media coverage, how come it took them a week-and-a-half to say something? The problem isn’t so much media coverage of the Manoment study; it’s the study itself, which has shriveled under public scrutiny, including that of its own creators.