Don’t be fooled by the great biomass incineration scam

By Daniel Barad, Special to CalMatters

Editor’s note: This is a response to the commentary: “Here’s a way to put people to work, reduce wildfires and generate electricity,” Sept. 22, 2019.

The flagging biomass incineration industry has joined forces with the logging industry to keep California’s few remaining, highly polluting biomass incinerators open.

Down from more than 60 in the 1990s, fewer than 25 biomass incinerators still burn in California. Like coal-fired power plants, these incinerators burn fuel, in this case trees and shrubs, and burp emissions out of a smokestack to produce dirty energy.

Industry lobbyists tell harrowing tales of forest fires that they say would have been prevented if only California incinerated more trees. Policymakers too often capitulate deferring to industries that profit from logging and burning over ecologists and air quality activists.

In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown propped up seven incinerators for five years to burn trees from hazardous areas ostensibly to confront the tree mortality crisis. In 2018, the Legislature extended the lives of six of those plants for five more years and expanded the areas from where facilities could obtain fuel.

But biomass incineration does not keep communities safe, improve air quality or restore forests. Instead, it allows logging companies to force ratepayers to help them burn the waste that their often ecologically destructive practices create.

This inconvenient reality was confirmed with a bioenergy fuel availability study released by the California Public Utilities Commission this summer. The study details the barriers to biomass incineration.

According to the study, the majority of the wood that fuels biomass incinerators is the byproduct of commercial logging operations that occur near incinerators, not of forest restoration or community protection projects.

In other words, Californian ratepayers—all of us—are paying a premium to burn the logging industry’s trash in our neighborhoods.

The logging and biomass industries will doubtless employ this report to demand more ratepayer money, longer contracts and fewer reporting requirements. But read analytically, the study unmasks an economically nonsensical, polluting industry that does nothing to promote forest restoration projects, fuel breaks nor defensible space programs.

Even when its community safety and forest health argument is exposed as a hoax, the logging industry has another trick up its sleeve. The industry threatens that if Californians do not pay for its waste, it will burn the branches and limbs in massive piles without emission controls.

There is a simple way to remedy this heinous threat. 

Instead of continuing to create policies that use our money to pay the logging industry to incinerate its trash, the state must ban pile burning and demand that logging companies help develop a sustainable, clean biomass utilization plan.

Policymakers took the biomass incineration and logging industries at their word. Now that they have the facts, they must change course. Our communities, lungs, forests, and wallets depend on it.


Daniel Barad is an organizer at Sierra Club California, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. 

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