Meet the 'Environmentalists' Fighting to Burn More Coal and Shrink US Forests

Meet the 'Environmentalists' Fighting to Burn More Coal and Shrink US Forests
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

When self-proclaimed environmental activists reject science, push policies that would harm our forests, burn more coal, and reduce access to important renewable technologies, it’s safe to say something has gone very wrong with some in the environmental movement.

Of course, most environmental groups don’t oppose sustainable forestry. Unfortunately, however, this is the absurd path being taken today by a small group of anti-forestry activist groups. They are aiming their fire at a critical tool to reduce carbon emissions and are spending millions to advance policies that would benefit the coal industry and shrink forests, our greatest carbon sink.

One of the technologies they’re attacking is wood biomass, which today is changing the energy landscape in the United Kingdom, European Union and Asia.

Wood biomass is a low-carbon, renewable energy source that comes from one of America’s most plentiful and stable resources – our working forests. It’s made from the byproducts of the timber industry, such as lower-value trees and parts of trees including tops and limbs that have no other market. 

Experts with the University of Illinois have found that wood biomass produces between 74 and 85 percent fewer carbon emissions than coal. In fact, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s foremost scientific body on climate science, has consistently recognized wood biomass as a necessary component of any strategy to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, a number longtime opponents of logging and the forest products industry, including the Asheville, North Carolina-based Dogwood Alliance, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Portland, Oregon-based Center for Sustainable Economy have launched a coordinated, well-funded attack to try and put wood biomass out of business.

The practical impact of these activists’ efforts is that private landowners will no longer see market incentive to keep their forests maintained, and could instead convert to more carbon-intensive uses like agriculture, or bulldoze for development, leaving forest land permanently destroyed. 

Today, countries like the U.K. are actively replacing millions of tons of coal with biomass in existing power plants. In June 2018, for instance, less than 1 percent of electricity in the U.K. came from coal, thanks in large part to the replacement of coal with biomass. There are now entire weeks when the U.K. no longer uses coal for power.  If these activists had their wish, all of that coal being replaced would still be burned and all of those carbon savings would be lost.

America’s forests today are growing, not shrinking, and this is happening not in spite of wood biomass, but because of it. Private landowners are key to protecting America’s forests, because as the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes, more than half of America’s forests are privately owned. Landowners face many choices about what to do with their land.

Should they clear it for development? Should they have a farm, grow corn or raise cattle? Or should they get paid to plant trees? In terms of combating the climate crisis, planting trees is the best thing landowners could do. Wood biomass, along with other sustainable forest products, create the incentives for landowners to sustainably manage and grow their forests. 

In fact, the IPCC’s major 2019 report on climate change and land specifically highlighted that a “sustainable forest management strategy” aimed at producing “energy from the forest” will “generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit” for combating climate change. 

 So let’s be clear: When so-called environmental groups attack wood biomass, they’re putting their own ideological opposition to forestry above the international scientific consensus, as represented by the IPCC. They’re doing everything they’ve spent decades condemning their opponents for – rejecting sound science, pushing policies that reduce access to renewable technologies, and worsening climate change. We can’t let that happen. 

Brian Rogers is spokesman for Future Forests + Jobs, an initiative sponsored by the wood energy industry. He previously served as Communications Director for U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ).

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