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Scientists urge Biden to remove logging, fossil fuels, biomass from budget bills

New York, NY - January 7, 2020: Former Vice President & Democratic hopeful Joe Biden made foreign policy statement at Current on Pier 59, Lev Radin for Shutterstock

New York, NY - January 7, 2020: Former Vice President & Democratic hopeful Joe Biden made foreign policy statement at Current on Pier 59, Lev Radin for Shutterstock

  • More than 100 scientists have issued an open letter urging U.S. President Joe Biden and members of Congress to remove provisions promoting logging, forest biomass and fossil fuels from the multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and reconciliation (Build Back Better) bills.
  • Both bills contain provisions for logging for lumber and for forest biomass energy, with the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 5.
  • Although the infrastructure bill promises $570 billion in tax credits and investments to combat climate change, it also includes a mandate for 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of “additional logging on federal public lands over the next 15 years.”
  • “The logging and fossil fuel subsidies and policies in the Reconciliation and Infrastructure Bills will only intensify the rate and intensity of our changing climate,” the letter states.

More than 100 scientists with expertise in ecology, forest management, biodiversity, and climate change issued an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden and members of Congress last week. The scientists urged the leaders to remove provisions promoting logging and fossil fuels from the multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and reconciliation bills.

Late on Nov. 5, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the $1.2 trillion physical infrastructure bill, which deals with roads, bridges and other traditional infrastructure, and which Biden is expected to sign. The nearly $2 trillion social infrastructure Build Back Better Act, also called the reconciliation bill, has yet to be voted on. This second piece of legislation implements changes in the federal budget and pushes forward Biden’s agenda in the areas of immigration, child care, tax credits, health care, climate change, and more.

Although the infrastructure bill includes $570 billion in tax credits and investments to combat climate change, in areas such as public transportation, electric vehicles and modernizing electrical grids, the 106 international scientists who drafted the letter say that provisions were also added for logging and fossil fuels that are antithetical to climate goals.

Temperate rainforest in Washington State’s Olympic National Park. Such forests store high amounts of carbon — significantly more than is stored by biomass tree plantations. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

“The Infrastructure Bill includes a legislative mandate for 30 million acres [12 million hectares] of additional logging on federal public lands over the next 15 years, in addition to misdirecting billions of dollars in new subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and an exemption from environmental analysis for new oil and gas pipelines across federal lands,” the letter states.

Logging in U.S. forests emits comparable levels of CO2 to the emissions from coal-burning, or more than 723 million tons. Logging emissions account for more than 10 times the combined amount of CO2 generated by wildfires and tree death from insects.

The scientists write that, even with provisions for logging and fossil fuels removed, the clean energy measures supported in the infrastructure and reconciliation bills are insufficient to reach the administration’s goal of a 50% reduction in annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

Both pieces of legislation contain provisions for logging for lumber, forest biomass energy, and wood pellets. Burning biomass, especially wood pellets to make energy, is highly controversial. Because wood is technically a renewable resource, biomass carbon emissions are currently counted as producing “zero emissions” by the U.N. and by many nations, allowing the exploitation of what is referred to as the “biomass carbon accounting loophole.”

However, biomass burning is not carbon neutral. Researchers, including those at Woods Hole Research Center, have established that burning wood pellets generates greater levels of emissions than coal per unit of energy produced because more biomass is required to generate the same amount of energy as coal. Also, cutting trees and converting them to wood pellets that are then burned releases that once stored carbon to the atmosphere. This forest carbon isn’t recovered and sequestered again until more trees are planted and grow, which can take many decades. However, drastic global emission cuts are most needed now and in the near term to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The UK’s Drax power station, the largest single user of woody biomass for energy production in the world. The Drax biomass dome, seen here, once burned coal but now burns wood pellets and chips. Photo credit: DECCgovuk on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND.

“As the world’s nations meet to discuss solutions to climate disruption, we in the USA must get our house in order,” Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University and one of the lead signatories of the letter, told Mongabay in an email. “Logging — and especially the misguided harvesting of timber for wood chips, puts nearly three-quarters of a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. This is supported by perverse [national] financial subsidies and, sadly by some misguided and poorly-informed conservation NGOS.”

“It’s all about the money,” fellow signatory Bill Moomaw, a top international researcher on biomass for energy and emeritus professor at Tufts University, said in a 2019 interview with Mongabay. “The wood pellet industry is a monster out of control.”

The reconciliation bill, a fast-track spending bill expected to receive votes before the end of November, contains more than double the amount of existing subsidies for logging on federal public lands: $14 billion worth. It also proposes “nearly $1 billion in new subsidies for forest biomass energy, wood pellet facilities, and mass timber (cross-laminated timber) under the heading of ‘wood innovation,’” according to the letter.

“This ignores the advice of hundreds of climate and forest scientists who have previously informed Congress that these industries substantially increase emissions and worsen the climate crisis,” the letter states.

Last week in Glasgow, Scotland, at the COP26 climate conference, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson released the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, with more than 100 countries committing to “halt and reverse forest loss” by 2030. Among those leaders was U.S. President Biden.

“Today, I’m announcing a new plan to conserve global forests, which will bring together a full range of U.S. government tools — diplomatic, financial, and policy — to halt forest loss, restore our critical carbon sinks, and improve land management,” Biden said in a speech at COP26 on Nov. 2. “Through this plan, the United States will help the world deliver on our shared goal of halting natural forest loss and restoring at least an additional 200 million hectares [494 million acres] of forests and other ecosystems by the year 2030.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden to the COP26 summit in Glasgow, United Kingdom on November 1, 2021. Image by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street.

“The big announcement today at COP to halt deforestation is very misleading,” Moomaw told Mongabay in an email. “It is all about stopping deforestation in the Amazon, while the US and Canada continue to add vast amounts of carbon from their clear cutting and forest management practices. The UK continues to replace coal with wood pellets from the US and not count the emissions at all and claim great reductions in their own emissions.”

The scientists writing in the open letter to Biden note that, according to the recent report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emissions must be cut in half by 2030 “to avoid large increases of devastating heat domes, prolonged droughts, wildfires that can impact communities, intense precipitation events, and catastrophic storms.”

“The logging and fossil fuel subsidies and policies in the Reconciliation and Infrastructure Bills will only intensify the rate and intensity of our changing climate,” said the letter.

Additional reporting by Justin Catanoso.

Banner image of US President Joe Biden in New York, NY, January 7, 2020 via Lev Radin for Shutterstock.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_

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