by Cheryl Joy Lipton
Last year, the Vermont Legislature tried to pass the Clean Heat Standard (CHS – H.715), proposing policies that would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions and lower biodiversity.. The same thing is happening now with the new version, S.5, the “Affordable” Heating Act (AHA). The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee (SNRE) is aware of the science and still passed the bill out of committee.
In S.5, woody biomass and biofuels are wrongly considered acceptable renewables. Since S.5 doesn’t require biogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the greenhouse gas accounting, it will not count most of the CO2 emissions and the bill will exacerbate climate change, impair human health, and add to the biodiversity crisis.
If emissions are assessed fairly, biomass and biofuels will be disqualified due to emissions, inequity and environmental destruction, but limited time and money will be wasted rather than spent on truly renewable solutions such as weatherization, geothermal and cold climate heat pumps running on energy from wisely placed solar and wind, and letting forests and other ecosystems grow naturally, store carbon, and support biodiversity. Studies have already been done and replicated that prove biomass used for heat or electricity is a bigger contributor to climate change than any of the fossil fuels, including coal, yet Vermont wants to put this bill forth anyway and also do more life cycle analysis studies.
The Request-For-Proposal (RFP) for a Vermont Life Cycle Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, put out last June by Jane Lazorchak, Director of the Office of Climate Action, specifies that reporting CO2 emissions from burning wood is not required, but is only an option. ERG, the company chosen to complete the life cycle analysis, requested that Jane Lazorchak: “Provide an overview of the initial approach you would use for analysis of life cycle emissions for use of biomass for energy.” Her response: “For combustion of the biomass (e.g., stationary combustion of wood), there will be GHG emissions from methane and nitrous 2 oxide that will be included. We will include the option to track biogenic carbon dioxide from combustion.” Ms. Lazorchak’s directive: greenhouse gas emissions from wood are to be treated like solar. It is a travesty that biomass burning is being considered “carbon neutral” in Vermont. At the very least, all legislation should require inclusion of all data, including biogenic, in counting emissions of every fuel type. (https://www.chathamhouse.org/2017/02/woody-biomass-power-and-heat/1-biomass-carbon-neutral)
Vermont is to address climate change through the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), the Vermont Climate Council (VCC), and appropriate legislation. Grave problems have occurred in this process resulting in the suppression of conclusions by the VCC, Subcommittee and Task Group members. The VCC did not include recommendations regarding biomass from their Subcommittee on Agriculture and Ecosystems (Ag&Eco) in the Climate Action Plan (CAP) seen here: https://outside.vermont.gov/agency/anr/climatecouncil/Shared%20Documents/VCCAgEcoBiomass_11-12-21.docx. Instead, a Biomass Task Group was formed to investigate those tabled recommendations, and they concluded essentially the same recommendations, almost a year later, here: https://outside.vermont.gov/agency/anr/climatecouncil/Shared%20Documents/BiomassRecommendations12_1_22Draft.pdf. Both recommend phasing biomass out of use, for numerous reasons. Next week at the Monday April 24th meeting, the Climate Council will finally look at biomass recommendations from the Biomass Task Group. Please note that the AHA is moving forward without this critical piece.
The Biomass Task Group focused on biomass use in electricity generation such as at McNeil and Ryegate Power Plants, but emissions from burning biomass for heat are not significantly different. Dr Jonathan Buonocore of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an expert presenting to the Biomass Task Group, reported that biomass burning results in significant public health and environmental justice consequences. Jared Ulmer (VT Department of Health) told SNRE of the harmful effects of any type of wood heating being higher and more damaging to health than any other fuel. Additionally, both Ag&Eco and the Biomass Task Group concluded biomass and biofuels should be investigated for heat generation also.
Last year, the CHS ignored Ag&Eco recommendations, though the creators of the bill know biofuels are controversial in the VCC and biomass use was directly recommended against. Now, the same thing is occurring with S.5, ignoring recommendations from Ag&Eco and Biomass Task Group, with both agriculture and natural ecosystems being negatively impacted.
Two entities came up with the same result independently: biomass burning is not a solution to climate change.The Vermont Clean Energy Development Board requested that the Biomass Task Group expand their scope to assess biomass burning for heat. Wood burning isn’t leaving Vermont soon, but to increase burning wood by endorsing it in legislation is a serious mistake.
Legislators that I’ve spoken with say that we just need to get something through and: “We can fix it later.” That will work only if all emissions are counted, regardless of where they come from, including biogenic – in other words, CO2 from burning wood. The problem we have is not with fossil fuels, it’s with greenhouse gas emissions. The fact that CO2 emissions from biomass are not being counted, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Even biogenic CO2 is exacerbating climate change and adding to the carbon debt. Biomass is not zero-emissions, not carbon neutral, and actually not renewable in any reasonable time frame. Let’s fix the bill now, not later.
Numerous scientists and policy experts are not in favor of this bill while it includes biofuels and biomass. Burning biomass, liquid biofuels and RNG is detrimental; not a solution to climate change. These experts include: Jared Ulmer, VT Department Of Health; Dr. Bill Moomaw, Tufts University and the Woodwell Climate Research Center; Dr. Juliette Rooney-Varga, University of Massachusetts; Dr. Rachel Smolker, Biofuelwatch; Laura Haight, Partnership for Policy Integrity; Dr. John Sterman, MIT; Dr. Jonathan Buonocore, Boston University; Dr. Jon Erickson, University of Vermont; Dr. Robert Howarth, Cornell University, and others. Relevant testimony was given in 2022 and 2023, for both S.5 and H.715, and to the Biomass Task Group of the Vermont Climate Council. Burning biomass and biofuels exacerbate climate change, increase greenhouse gasses and contribute to the equally existential threat of loss of biodiversity. RNG is increasing CAFOs, methane leaking, and intense pollution causing disastrous health impacts to people in surrounding communities. Biofuel use has accelerated habitat destruction in forests around the world. The use of biomass in the EU is causing intense deforestation in the southern US for export and in European old growth forests. Tropical forests are being cleared at about 200 square kilometers per day mostly for palm oil and soybean oil, about 50% and 30% respectively used for biofuels. Food production and wildlife habitat is displaced by biofuel production with food prices increased by as much as 30% (corn.) Fertilizer and pesticide use has increased, water quality degraded, and emissions increased so that ethanol, for example, is at least 24% higher than gasoline (PNAS Feb. 14, 2022.) AHA has not changed enough to make it an actual solution to our problems. Recommendations from last year were ignored and now again they are not being used in this legislative session. Additionally, with biomass in the bill, it is in conflict with the Biodiversity bill, H. 126. The AHA is incredibly important for clean energy, clean heat, climate, clean water and biodiversity but it’s impossible to effectively reduce CO2 and address biodiversity loss without addressing the deleterious effects of using biomass and biofuels by removing them from this bill.”
SNRE has heard from experts in economics, health, and science that Vermont doesn’t count all CO2, the models being used are outdated and insufficient (GREET), it is not economically feasible to use biofuels and biomass, it is both inefficient and unhealthy to burn biomass and biofuels for any purpose, and New York, where they plan to get biofuel from, will most likely disallow its transfer offsite. They heard that the bill is unjust and inequitable. Still, they voted in favor of it.
Now for the common sense: Why burn something that is actively pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere? Trees are actively taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it. That carbon storage won’t be replaced until a new tree gets to the same age as the one that was cut. If you had a choice between eliminating something that isn’t doing any job and eliminating something that is doing a job, why would you choose to eliminate the one doing valuable work?
A Clean Heat Working Group was formed in 2020, which did not collaborate with the Vermont Climate Council nor any of the subcommittees, though some Climate Council members participated in it, and some of them have been inferring that the CHS and AHA are from the work of Vermont Climate Council. The working group includes also the PUC, and VGS – Vermont Gas. which seems to be the driving force for this Clean Heat Standard. This bill will enable the VGS pipeline to continue to use fossil fuels through 2050. In working group discussions it is admitted that RNG, Renewable Natural Gas, is very high cost compared to fossil fuel gas (about 10X as expensive), there is a limited supply. One of VGS’ goals is to socialize the cost. The Cross-Sector Mitigation subcommittee never had any substantive discussion of the topic in any meetings. The CHS was pitched by Rich Cowart in the first meeting of the CSM subcommittee and was presented as a recommendation of the CSM but not discussed in any depth in the subcommittee. All the substantive discussions that legislators are being led to believe happened at the Climate Council never happened. They happened behind the scenes with this private working group whose work was never brought into any Climate Council meetings.
Let me reiterate: The 2022 Legislative Session went forth without the recommendations regarding biomass from the Vermont Climate Council Agriculture and Ecosystems Subcommittee and now the Legislative Session of 2023 is moving forward with legislation without recommendations from the VCC’s Biomass Task Group. The Clean Heat Standard, aka Affordable Heating Act, was not discussed in any depth in the Climate Council nor the Cross-Sector Mitigation or any other subcommittee, and is being touted as the VCC’s main strategy to deal with climate change. This bill, S.5, is not the work of the Vermont Climate Council.
There is a way forward that includes a just transition for the people in the gas and forestry industry, just as we need in transitioning away from fossil fuels. We cannot burn coal or trees for heat or electricity, and the people in fossil fuels and those in biomass and biofuel industries must also be taken into consideration, but not by continuing to use those fuels.
Last year, only Tom Bock of Chester was wise enough and brave enough to do something that was politically difficult. He listened to scientific reason. He voted against something that would not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but would harm the health of people and the environment that supports us all. Legislators in Vermont should muster the courage to do the right thing, like Rep. Bock did; stop listening to industry, and pay attention to science, justice, equity. Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman supports climate and energy justice. I say now as he did in February, we are: ”Speaking out, as Dr. Seuss so visionarily said, ‘for the trees as the trees have no tongues.’ And that we must keep beating the drums for the bees. And we must keep swarming the policy makers and the Governor with positive messages about the need for real action.”
The author is a ecosystem restoration specialist.