Biomass not so “green” — Interview with Josh Schlossberg
Josh Schlossberg is an investigative journalist, horror author and former environmental organizer who lives in Denver, Colorado. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Biomass Monitor, a subscription-supported publication that bills itself as “the nation’s leading publication investigating the whole story on bioenergy, biomass, and biofuels.” In early September 2018, I was visiting Colorado and met up with Josh. We talked biomass, “renewable” energy, wildfires, politics and activism. What follows is a partial transcript, edited for clarity.
Kollibri: This term, “biomass.” I’d just like to start there. I think a lot of people hear that word and they’re like, “Oh it’s got ‘bio’ in it, this is something good that’s going on,” and they move on. But it’s a more complicated issue. So what’s included under this term, “biomass?”
Josh: A broader term would be “bioenergy.” It all depends on how you want to define things, but “bioenergy” itself would include everything from liquid fuels made of plants or various materials like that. Most of what biomass is ties into trees for electricity or industrial heating. That’s typically what people mean when they’re referring to that. Trash incineration sorta falls under the category of biomass. The burning of black liquor which is a byproduct of making paper. Even wood heating, in a sense, is biomass… Where people are most concerned is around forest biomass for electricity and/or industrial scale heating. Because that ties into specific ecosystems stuff.
I don’t have the figures off the top of my head right now, but basically half of, quote, renewable energy is a form of bioenergy. I believe about 10% is for electricity. So it’s not even the lion’s share of what is bioenergy, but it’s most of what people are paying attention to. If you’re doing biomass, presumably for climate issues, and then you have forests that are doing a lot of work for climate on their own, that’s kind of where a lot of the controversy comes into play. And it goes further than that. There’s also health concerns.
People are like, “let’s get off of coal” because of climate stuff, but also people are concerned about air pollution. But biomass is also burning stuff. If you are concerned about the emissions from a coal plant, you should be concerned about biomass. Obviously there’s lots of filtration. They filter out the great majority of pollutants, but not all of the pollutants.
It actually takes more biomass to generate the same amount of electricity. So you have a chunk of dense coal — and this is certainly not an endorsement of coal, it’s just scientific facts — [which] provides more energy because it’s dense. I don’t have the numbers, but you need way more wood because it’s less dense.
Kollibri: Volumetrically a larger amount?
Josh: Yes, you get it. So that burning of more material is going to create more pollutants and particulates for that same amount of energy. So it gets, in some ways, complicated really fast. At the same time, there’s some pretty elementary science, if you let a tree grow it continues to absorb and store carbon. If you cut it down and burn it, it releases that pulse immediately.
Industry’s argument is well, eventually that tree is going to burn up in a wildfire or it’s just gonna die in 100 years and release the carbon, so why not cut it down and make use of it? Of course, the issue is about time frame, right? It’s about that one pulse that will go up in the atmosphere versus gradually being released over a period of decades because the tree doesn’t just evaporate.
Even when it burns, most of the material is still there and it’s stored in the trunk itself and in the roots and in the soil. Then when it falls, it has all these other purposes. A dead tree, even if it did burn in a wildfire, has all these purposes. So then you’re getting out of just the climate change argument and into more of an ecosystem argument. So its gets, like I said, fairly complex in that regard.
But again, basic science is they’re storing carbon dioxide, wouldn’t we want more forests? Even the industry acknowledges that there are limits and that there are dangers in burning up our carbon storage.
Kollibri: So in the United States right now, where are the hotspots for this?
Josh: That would be California, the Northeast — primarily Maine — and there’s a fair amount going on in the Southeast as well, around Georgia, Florida, Texas. And then they’re scattered around the country. There’s a little bit in Arizona, one here in Colorado that I’ve investigated a fair amount and even gone out to the forest there. I’m the only person I know who’s taken pictures of the logging operations for that. Frankly, at almost any biomass facility, most people haven’t done that. I’ve tried to document — not even having an opinion on it — here’s what logging, tying into biomass, looks like.
But the areas in which they’re looking to expand are more also in the Northwest and the Southeast. They’re the areas that have the most likely potential to expand. It’s expensive and so it’s really based a lot on subsidies. So [there’s] been all this to-do up in New Hampshire and Maine recently with subsides and with facilities closing down.
That’s the other thing. Lots of facilities closing down over the last five years. There was a boom around 2010, partially because of the stimulus package, so a lot of money went toward biomass facilities and tax subsidies and stuff like that. Then natural gas got cheap, temporarily, because it’s a bubble like anything else, so a lot of these facilities shut down, completely closed their doors, or they sat idle for a while. Some of them transitioned over to natural gas. So the industry was not doing particularly well recently.
However, the EPA had been discussing whether or not they should account for carbon dioxide, were there to be some sort of carbon tax or whatever. They’ve been discussing this for eight years, I believe. Finally, there was an announcement made saying that they would not account for the carbon dioxide. And it is not a rule as of yet — it would have to got through a rule-making process — but it’s a policy directive, and it’s basically going to guide their future policy.
So basically they’re saying, you cut down a tree and you burn it up from a “managed” forest… those trees will count as if it’s not carbon dioxide. As if it’s a windmill turning around. And some people think that’s legit. And I think it’s worthwhile for people to genuinely try to understand how industry is looking at the science.
There are hundreds of foresters with academic backgrounds that believe in that concept of biogenic carbon. So the idea that this tree carbon is going up in the atmosphere anyway — it’s only temporarily here — all this is just in this ongoing pool, so we can access it instead of coal. That’s in the ground, we take it out, it’s a pulse that would never have gotten out there. So they distinguish between those two.
The thing is, and a lot of scientists say this, the atmosphere doesn’t care where your carbon comes from.
Josh: It doesn’t distinguish that. So if we’re at a point where we’re at carbon saturation or whatever you want to call it, more of a pulse is not necessarily a good thing. And let’s say we had a hundred years. Cause that’s what they’re saying.: We’ll look at it over a hundred year time frame. More trees would be absorbing that carbon over time, so it’s all “carbon neutral,” as they say.
But that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes forests don’t grow back at the same rate, sometimes they don’t grow back at all, sometimes they’re cut down and developed. There’s soil fertility issues. Climate change is changing the zones. All that can happen. But let’s just say all the forest will come back and reabsorb that carbon over a hundred year time frame. Do we have a hundred years to reduce the emissions? So that’s really encompassing the argument as best as I can understand it.
Kollibri: When you mention these different places where it’s going to be active in the United States, or is active, that’s mostly with trees?
Josh: Yeah the vast majority of it for the biomass power facilities and the heating facilities is with trees. You know, liquid fuels are primarily form corn and canola and they’re working on some other stuff. They do want to do liquid fuels from other things and from trees as well. There’s a facility that just opened in Oregon called Red Rock Biofuel and they want to make liquefied fuel out of trees, but the process hasn’t really been perfected so I don’t know exactly what they’re doing.
Kollibri: Not all of the trees being cut down are for US use. Some of it is for European use.
Josh: That’s true in the Southeast. They’re cutting private forest land and industrial forest land and they’re shipping that overseas. It’s a smaller percentage, though, than what’s going on in this country. It’s interesting, there’s more attention being given to the exporting of those trees than to domestic production of it. Of course it’s because, “Why do they get our stuff?” and that’s a valid concern but there’s still plenty going on in the US.
On the West Coast they’re actually starting to ramp up for more exports to Asia. So Asia is looking at more biomass. Japan because of their experiences with Fukushima, and they’re looking at doing other things. So there’s going to be more and more exports. So even it’s not as financially viable here, they may export overseas.
It’s not like, here’s a forest, they clearcut everything and use everything from the trunk to the leaves and that goes to biomass. It’s only sometimes that easy. That’s what makes this issue more complicated. I actually documented this with the Eagle Valley Clean Energy facility in Gypsum. That’s about two hours west of here on I-70. You can see if from the road. They have been harvesting beetle-killed forest up in the Rockies and clearcutting hundreds of acres and using every bit of the tree for that biomass facility.
That’s really sort of rare. Most of what happens is that there’s a logging operation that’s typically already planned and they’re using the merchantable wood — typically the lower part, most of the trunk –for dimensional lumber, things like that, and typically the top parts that are more tapering and whatnot, that’s often what goes to biomass, as well as any tree that ‘s crooked, knotty, partially rotten, has imperfections. So they will cut those down and use the entirety of those. So it’s called “whole-tree” logging but it’s a been a bit misrepresented, even by some activist groups who are saying, “Oh, whole tree logging means they’re cutting down the whole tree down and using it for biomass.” Not always the case. It means they’re taking the whole tree out of the forest, which is more ecologically detrimental than leaving the tops and branches, which have the higher nutrient content. So in typical logging just for lumber, they would leave that –
Kollibri: — the “slash?” –
Josh: — yeah, the slash. So you know about that. But sometimes they’re taking all of it out and a lot of times biomass piggybacks on these existing logging operations. But in some cases it’s entirely just for biomass. And in other cases, it makes the logging economically viable to begin with. So even if all of it is not for biomass, the fact that they have that extra chunk of change for biomass might make it so more of these logging operations happen.
And then a lot of what’s happening now is wildfire “fuel reduction” projects out in the forest, throughout the West in the National Forests, and that’s kind of the big thing that the Forest Service is going for and various places, particularly California and the Northwest, a few of the areas in the Southwest, are going for that. That’s a big to-do as well.
Kollibri: And that’s highly controversial.
Josh: It is.
Kollibri: Because there’s definitely scientists who don’t think that really works for reducing wildfires.
Josh: Yeah, so there’s a lot of science on that. I’ve focused a lot on that element. And that’s quite complicated in many ways as well. You know, the conventional wisdom, is, “Well, there’s too many trees ’cause they grew up and we suppressed wildfire, so we need to log them to put things in order.”
Now, it’s a little more complicated than that, of course. We did suppress wildfires over the last 75 years but there’s a lot of scientist suggesting that fuel levels alone are only a small component of what creates a large wildfire. Mostly it’s climate. So when there’s drought, heat and wind. Anytime there’s a big fire, pretty much — I don’t’ want to say 100% of the time, but almost 100% of the time — when you see a big wildfire happening, it’ll be hot as hell, super dry for a while, and there will be heavy winds. And when it stops, it’s because those things stopped.
Kollibri: Firefighters will tell you that, too.
Josh: Yeah, they know.
Kollibri: The fire stops when the rains start They’re out there to triage, to mitigate in particular places — keep this house from burning down or whatever.
Josh: To keep it from going too far. Now, in the backcountry, there’s never been anything they can do. And then there’s a lot of science showing that it stops some of the smaller fires which are not necessarily what people are concerned with for burning their homes down.
So what most people are saying who really look at the science is: protect homes, the areas around the homes. So it could be that 60 feet around a home is all you need to maintain, to keep the home from burning.
Kollibri: They say 100 feet in northern California.
Josh: Yeah. Newer studies are saying it’s not even necessary to have to go that far but the idea is you do work around the home.
With the beetle-killed forests, it doesn’t look pretty. But basically forests have been full of bugs and fires forever. It’s not only okay, it’s essential. The real issue is when it comes to communities. That’s for real.
Of course, people keep building in the forest, so there are issues with zoning. But that’s almost more controversial than biomass. The minute you start saying where people can and cannot build their home, people don’t want to hear that. But that’s the reality: you build you place out there, it’s more like to to burn, so there should be more attention paid to that defensible space. That fire-wise stuff. I’m a big advocate for that. Even people who think biomass is great and we should cut down all the back country, still agree we can do something around the home so everyone agrees about that…
But there isn’t a lot of science that clear-cutting or even thinning black country native forest will protect anybody. And in fact, it can make things worse by opening things up to more sunlight, drying it out. There are some studies that have shown that in some cases, it has slowed down some of the smaller fires, but not the bigger fires. So is it even worth spending money on it, is the question.
Kollibri: I started studying the forest issues in the early 2000’s, when I first moved to Portland, because I was hanging out with tree-sitters out there. I got a lot of education about this and about fire ecology and all that kind of thing, and it is simply a fact that the profit motive leads to all sorts of assertions. Know what I mean? Corporate media, who are at least in the same class with — if not in interlocking boards of directors with — these kinds of companies, are of course going to deliver particular kinds of messages. So the reality around the science of forests and specifically of fire ecology just doesn’t actually get out there.
Josh: It’s been a little more. There’s some folks who’ve have been getting it out there. Media has occasionally been paying attention to Chad Hanson.
Kollibri: Yeah, he’s really good. At the John Muir Project.
Josh: Yeah, and folks in Oregon like Dominick DellaSala. And there’s lots of folks in the grass roots who have been saying this stuff forever and occasionally people pay attention to that.
But yeah, with biomass, with the wedding of biomass of wildfires, industry can say, “We have to treat wildfire” and “Look, we get our byproduct of biomass so it’s a win-win and we’re protecting the climate –
Kollibri: — and it’s “renewable,” la la –
Josh: — so it’s a good story and there’s some kernels of truth to it but I think when you look closer at the science, you see that it’s opening a Pandora’s box, depending on our forest for that amount of energy. It’s only a small percent anyway. I mean, right now, I think it’s like 1% of our energy so let’s say we double or triple. Ooh, 2% or 3%! It’s almost an insignificant amount of energy.
So at best it’s a distraction. Let’s just say an angel gets its wings every time you cut down a tree and burn it. Still it’s a tiny percentage of our electricity so we need to be figuring out other stuff. I think the really deep change — and that’s the big danger of my advocacy for renewable energy — is you’re not looking at our energy consumption. There’s energy efficiency, there’s conservation, like turn off the lights. That’s great. But living more simply and just really reassessing our economic system, but no one wants to talk about that. But that’s where I try to take the conversation. Alright, biomass, blah blah blah, but what about how we are living? What about how our cities are set up? All those sorts of things are the ultimate conversation that needs to be had.
And I think even a lot of environmentalists are like, you put in renewable and you get on with your day and everything is good. Democrats have actually been the biggest advocates for biomass. The biggest advocate in Congress is Senator Wyden.
Kollibri: Oh really? Wyden? I didn’t know that.
Josh: He’s huge. He’s been the biggest advocate.
Kollibri: Because it’s “jobs?”
Josh: It’s jobs and it’s “renewable” energy. That’s where that whole left-right polarity becomes a problem. And also because it’s a kind of surface-level environmentalism. Oh it’s “renewable!” Well, we’re just talking about climate stuff and you don’t like coal, but this stuff actually generates more — depends on how you looks at biogenic carbon — but if you look at it the way more scientists do, it generates more CO2 than coal.
So it’s weird to have folks who are with some of the big climate movements who are saying “no” to coal but then “yes” to biomass energy, which actually produces a lot of CO2. So it’s just inconsistent.
Kollibri: It’s wishful thinking, too.
Josh: So that’s what’s so complex about it. The environmental community is a bit conflicted on it and more recently they’ve been at least coming out against industrial-scale biomass electricity, but there are actually a lot of those folks who are even quoted as opposing that, [but who are] some of the bigger advocates for other forms of bioenergy. And I’m not putting moral judgments on any of that. I’m just staying that there’s a lot of inconsistency and it’s very confusing and there’s not a clear message being sent.
In the Biomass Monitor, it started as an advocacy publication, but I’ve changed it to getting all sides of the story there. And you know, I have my little editorial, and I will talk about things this way, basing it off the science. But industry has some points to make and I think they deserve to be in that conversation. So what I want to do is see that conversation happening in the same place. So with my articles I will talk to everyone and I will do these point/counterpoint segments. I’ve had CEOs of bioenergy industries and I’ll get someone to write on the other side of it.
Media — mainstream media — is supposed to do that, but they suck at at it, they don’t care or know enough or have the time or the resources to delve in to that. So media is not doing that. So I try to do that in my tiny-ass publication.
Kollibri: Media talks about not having resources but their resources are enormous. They could cover any of it if they wanted to. But you have 90% of them owned by 5 or 6 corporations so there’s lots of things they’re not going to cover. NBC is owned by GE right? So did they ever talk about how the Fukushima reactor is a General Electric design? That sort of thing is never going to happen. Or how many of that same design there are in the United States right now. [Note: NBC News is no longer owned by General Electric, but was in 2011 at the time of the Fukushima disaster.]
Josh: Some of the journalists have like a three day deadline and they don’t have an in-depth understanding of the science so they’re just going to like, “What does the NRDC say?” and “What does that person say?” “I guess we’ll never know.” Well, we could look at the science!
But I still think the discussion is important and sometimes some conclusions can be made around that. and sometimes the activists are not making honest statements either and I don’t think that really helps the cause either.
Kollibri: Well, they get involved in the politics of it. And the level of politics is not about facts, it’s about emotion. So, what are the words that are going to trigger certain things? That are going to get people on my side versus their side? Etc. etc. This is what activists do. And I’ve been in that position of being tempted to communicate that way. But activists can never win that game against these corporations that have such larger budgets.
Josh: No, you can’t beat them at that. You can only beat them at the integrity game. That’s what is really important for activists… Maybe you trick people in the short term, but then you lose your credibility and that’s all that activism has, is the credibility of the moral high ground. Once you lose that, you are not going to win. You can’t out-propaganda them. They’re going to win.
Kollibri: How did biomass fit into Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy?
Josh: He advocated for it a lot. I wrote an article when [he was running against Romney], and there were all these opposing things, but their biomass position was identical.
Biomass was a big thing for the Democrats because it was low hanging fruit for renewable energy. You need a shitload of windmills to produce a lot of electricity, and solar panels. But biomass is an easy way to get in there. That’s why they advocated for a lot of that.
Kollibri: There’s a mostly untold story about what happened in the Obama administration with energy policy and how the fossil fuel production in the US grew to a level it hasn’t been at since the early 70’s. When he said “all of the above” he really meant all of the above. So fossil fuel production went through the roof. Along with that the, quote, renewable part was subsidies or support for the industrial-sized plants like the industrial-sized solar and wind out in the desert –
Josh: — which have ecological impacts –
Kollibri: — which have a tremendous ecological impact. And you’ve provably heard of Basin and Range Watch?
Kollibri: I feel like they’re the folks to go to first on this one. I got to interview them a couple years ago and learned about that. [See “Taking on the Sacred Cow of Big ‘Green’ Energy.”] The deserts of southern California and Nevada there, because nothing else was there, they are some of the closest to pristine or untouched areas left in the US. Nothing to chop down, nothing to dig up –
Josh: — no one wants to live there –
Kollibri: Right? And now they’re out there bulldozing all of it to build these massive operations. When actually what should be happening is this should be happening at site. Put solar panels on the roof of every building in Las Vegas rather than –
Josh: Yeah, that’s industrialized rather than more of a localized, smaller scale. We dealt with some of that in Vermont as well because there were ridgeline wind towers they wanted to put up and there were folks advocating against that because forests were being cut. Which was ironic because the people advocating against cutting down the trees on the ridge were actually advocating for biomass power.
It’s a whole big confusing mess. The environmental movement has never been on the same page and I think that’s part of it’s failure. I like to point that stuff out and I’m certainly pro-environment but I want to see the sides do their jobs. Industry’s job is to make money and to advocate for everything to do to make money. You can’t expect them to do anything else.
So the countervailing force is the activist movement . But there is no real cohesive push-back so industry gets away with stuff. And industry is almost like, “We do what we get away with and you folks don’t actually have any solidarity against us so what are we supposed to do?” It’s like an alcoholic. They’re addicted and they’re not the ones who are going to stop themselves. So if the environmental movement can’t even get its shit together to have a coherent platform then it’s like it’s equally their fault.
I say that as a former activist. I was an activist for twelve years and I don’t consider myself an activist anymore. I just write about it and I have my own feelings about it. I find my own feelings are not that interesting. My own opinions are not that interesting. I think I can do more of a service [as a journalist] because I can understand the different points of view.
So what does it look like to be a logger in Maine, and this all you know? I don’t think they’re right about ecological arguments. Scientifically, they’re not, but are they coming from a place that makes a bit of sense from what their moral foundation is? Oftentimes, yeah. They’re like, “I’m tying to keep my family in this area and this is the main job that’s here.” There’s a an argument to be made for that. I don’t think that trumps the ecological argument but it’s their argument.
Alright, let’s put it out there. And let’s have the two ideas fight in the same place and see which idea wins. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? That’s what most media doesn’t to. That’s what I try to do with the Biomass Monitor.
Kollibri: Has much changed since Trump came in?
Josh: No. Obama was just as much in favor of it. So this is something that you can hold both parties equally culpable for if you don’t like it. Obama got a pass for a lot of anti-environmental stuff. And then the same stuff they let fly under Obama, people are all of sudden concerned about because Trump. Well that’s disingenuous. I mean, I’m not a fan of any of those people or any of those parties.
Kollibri: No, me neither. Taking this little deeper, I think that the whole discussion around renewables is always about, “Oh, what are these news things we can do, new things we can add, to keep powering our way of life,” when it’s like, “Well, wait a minute. Anytime, you’re adding something, you’re adding destruction. Somewhere, you’re taking down a forest, you’re plowing up a desert, you’re digging up all these rare earth minerals for your batteries.” They all come with a cost — an environmental cost. And should we be adding more ability or should we be figuring out, collectively, how to be using far, far less?
Josh: That’s not a popular platform.
Josh: But that’s the discussion that needs to be had and it’s not being had. And how does that discussion get spurred? I think that’s going to come from environmental groups because those are the ones that people turn to. And people are asking, “What are they saying about that?” But they’re saying jackshit about it because you can’t fundraise around that. You can fundraise around, “Hey we’re going to lug in solar panels and you can stream Netflix.” You can’t be like, “Hey, what do you want to not do, and to change in your life?” That’s not appealing.
That being sad, those who are advocating for simpler lifestyles, they need to do a better job. We need to do a better job of pointing out the pros of that life. Not just the sacrifices. You may feel happier because you are living a slowed-down life. You may have closer connections with members of your community.
If your goal is to increase your status, economically or otherwise, using less doesn’t help that. There are studies that show your higher level of consumption increases your popularity with members of your own sex or the other sex. So that’s a real thing we need to look at. We need to look at it! It’s real. So there’s a lot reason for people not to want to do that.
So what is the argument in favor of that? The satisfaction of being able to grow your own food or get your own food locally. There’s a lot to be said for that. I mean, it’s pretty awesome. I mean, it’s not like, “Oh, don’t go in your car!” No, it’s “Ride your bike because you calves will get stronger.”
Kollibri: Because biking is sexier than driving.
Josh: Right? Your ass will look better. However you can frame it. Not just in sexual terms, but that’s part of it. That really is.
But [as for] having those discussions, the environmental groups are not doing that because they get money. I played the foundation game. You have to do what the foundations want. Where does the money for the foundation come from? Oh, the giant corporations. The Pew Charitable Trust that funds so many of the environmental groups, their money comes from Sun Oil, from Sunoco. I mean, I’m sure some of the children of the Sun Oil family are well-meaning, but do you really think they’re people who want to revamp the entire economic system? No, that doesn’t even exist in their minds. No one who grew up and lived that way way, for the most part, could think that, so that’s what ends up happening. And then you’re another environmental group and you’re competing for that grant money and that attention. Good luck!
That’s why I write. Let me put information out there. I don’t know what else to do.