On Monday, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will begin accepting public comment on a draft carbon cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the commonwealth’s power plants. The agency also announced that it will also hold six public hearings on the plan in March. But a gap in the proposal limits its effectiveness: The program won’t cover carbon emissions from wood-burning — “biomass” — power plants, allowing Virginia’s several wood-burners to continue polluting without mitigation and rewarding coal-fired power plants that switch to burning wood from forests.
Wood-burning power plants are not clean. They emit particulate matter, smog precursors and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. Nor are they climate-friendly, pumping about 50 percent more carbon pollution per megawatt-hour into the atmosphere than coal plants.
Power-plant carbon pollution warms the climate just as effectively whether it comes from burning trees or fossil fuels, highlighting the central fallacy of treating biomass power plants as “carbon-neutral.” Such claims assume that future forest regrowth will take up and offset carbon dioxide released by burning biomass or that wood fuel is simply logging waste that would decompose and emit carbon dioxide anyway. The problem is that burning wood emits greenhouse gases immediately but the offsetting processes take years to more than a century.
Ask climate scientists how to avoid catastrophic climate change, and they’ll tell you we need reductions now — not speculation about reductions that may occur decades from now.
Virginia’s carbon-trading plan isn’t unique in ignoring emissions from wood-burning plants. The problem also exists with California’s cap-and-trade plan, the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states’ Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (in which Virginia may participate) and the European Union trading program.
In fact, the E.U. program is Exhibit A of what can happen when wood-burning power plants are counted as having zero carbon emissions.
Much of the emissions “reductions” claimed by the E.U. and United Kingdom come from converting coal plants to burn wood pellets imported from the United States and Canada, then assuming the emissions will be offset by future tree growth. As a direct result of this fallacy, millions of tons of North American trees are harvested, pelletized and shipped overseas as fuel each year. The pellet industry, built entirely on the “carbon-neutral” fallacy, is responsible for logging tens of thousands of forest acres throughout the South each year, including in Virginia, a green scam of epic proportions.
Then there is the wood that is burned for electricity generation in Virginia itself. Dominion Energy has cashed in on regional renewable-energy subsidies and federal incentives for bioenergy by converting three nearly mothballed coal-fired power plants to burn wood, and it built the 585-megawatt Virginia City plant to burn up to 20 percent wood with 80 percent fossil fuels. Other Virginia wood-burners include Dominion’s Pittsylvania plant, MeadWestvaco’s Covington plant and NOVEC’s South Boston plant. Combined, Virginia’s wood-pellet manufacturing and wood-burning power plants send more than 5 million tons of carbon dioxide from forest wood straight into the atmosphere each year.
Market-based mechanisms such as Virginia’s proposed carbon-trading plan can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but they will work best if all major emitting sources are covered. Virginia’s program would be the first since the signing of the Paris climate agreement, in which countries around the world agreed to “conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases . . . including forests” and to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
This goal is essential to our future. By including wood-burning power plants under the cap, Virginia would better protect its children and, in recognizing the true value of forests for climate mitigation, become an international climate leader.
Mary S. Booth is director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity. Seth Heald is climate change chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.
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