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Biomass Burning

The unspoken realities of subsidized pollution

In a Viewpoint on Aug. 1, 2012, Roy Keene described how Timber Town Eugene buzzes along nearly oblivious to the forest destruction and herbicide poisoning around it. Much like a frog in a pot of water brought to a slow boil, the timber industry relies on what geographer and author Jared Diamond has referred to as “landscape amnesia” — slow environmental degradation that would be offensive if only at a faster pace. The scenario with the Seneca biomass power facility is disturbingly similar. The Lane Regional Air Protection Agency (LRAPA) might let Seneca have its way, but no ad campaign on the part of Seneca is going to hide from the Eugene public the reality that biomass energy, like the chemical clearcut regime it emerged from, is a dirty, destructive dead-end. 

Already belching disease-causing pollutants night and day, Seneca requests to increase its pollution without using the best available control technology for the most dangerous particulate matter, PM 2.5. While the federal appellate court recently overturned the biomass industry’s exemption of new facilities from CO2 regulation, Seneca is off the hook under the accepted grandfathering of facilities existing before 2011. Biomass energy, promoted by our own local air agency and public utility officials as clean, renewable, sustainable and carbon-neutral, is none of these. Too bad Eugene Water and Electric Board, which buys Seneca’s biomass electricity, recently cut its conservation and efficiency program that was reducing energy demand and helping ratepayers. 

What’s sustainable or fair about subsidization? 

Top biomass promoters, including Gov. John Kitzhaber, Sen. Ron Wyden and Congressman Peter DeFazio, tout Oregon as a huge, underutilized biomass fuel and power region. How much will the public benefit from the latest extractive industrial ploy? How many jobs will it bring in contrast to medical bills from the increased pollution? How much revenue will it return to at least offset public subsidies?

The Seneca facility requires huge volumes of chips and even whole trees. Not only are the logging and logging roads publicly subsidized, so was construction of the facility and is the never-ending transport of biomass to the facility. Seneca is getting trees from as far as Forest Service “stewardship” contract projects east of the Cascades. These subsidies will attract more Senecas to Oregon. 

Highlighted recently in the national press, in the Southeast U.S. the burgeoning biomass industry heralds the final stages of forest exploitation, punching in new, heavily subsidized, thoroughly poisoned tree farms, wood pellet facilities and terminals for export to the United Kingdom. 

Already manipulated like a third world country, Oregon suffers from increasing raw log and chip exports, including heavily undervalued public old-growth trees chipped as “culls” because of rot or fire scars. Weak Oregon Forest Practices Rules and an untaxed timber industry are reducing the private forest to fiber suitable only for burning while putting more pressure on public forest to provide construction-grade trees. What will be the effects of subsidized biomass fuel harvest be on our already contested forests?

How can we protect our health, our forests and the climate from the increasingly global demand for energy and biomass fodder and fuels? Especially from economically powerful countries like China who consumed their own forests centuries ago and are already consuming ours?

These are the unspoken realities of the emerging so-called “clean and sustainable” biomass industry in Oregon — questions Wyden and DeFazio, in their rush to do the bidding of their corporate masters, are not asking. As senior legislators in Congress they wield the power to open up public forests and waterways to biomass extraction and energy production, putting a dirty industry ahead of cost-effective and job-creating conservation, efficiency, heat pump and solar technologies. 

Democrats fighting for food stamp continuation ought to reconsider their support for dirty biomass energy subsidies in the Farm Bill.