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Jamie Sayen: The truth about mega-biomass

  • A 245-acre whole-tree liquidation is seen in Stratford in 2015. Courtesy of Kitty Kerner



For the Monitor
Thursday, July 19, 2018

Paul Doscher writes in the July 12 Monitor that electricity generation in biomass plants provides urgently needed markets for wood of low economic value. He argues that caring forest landowners cannot afford to conduct “timber stand improvement” cuts unless there is a market for that low-value wood – a legacy of past forest mismanagement.

Meanwhile, up in Coos County, we are suffering whole-tree liquidation cuts of hundreds of acres to feed the 75 MW Burgess biomass plant in Berlin. Eversource ratepayers have been forced to pay $100 million in subsidies to the Burgess plant. Gov. Chris Sununu recently extended subsides to Burgess another three years. How much could the state accomplish if that $100 million was used to develop low-carbon footprint energy policies, instead of subsidizing wholesale forest destruction in Coos followed by massive carbon emissions from Burgess?

Doscher – former vice president at the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests, a group now lobbying to influence the legislation in question – failed to mention several essential facts about mega-biomass:

– Biomass plants that generate only electricity are extremely inefficient. They waste roughly 75 percent of all wood burned. Burgess requires 100 tractor-trailer loads of chips every day; those 75 wasted loads release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. By contrast, co-generation and district heating are roughly 75-80 percent efficient.

– Biomass plants currently emit more carbon per unit of energy produced than does coal. Mega-biomass plants are exacerbating climate change, not providing a green, renewable, carbon-neutral source of energy. Check out Mary S. Booth, “Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy has Become the New Coal,” Partnership for Policy Integrity, April 2014.

– Forest liquidation undermines the ability of forests to provide optimal carbon sequestration services. Forests and oceans are Earth’s most important carbon sinks. Old forests sequester more carbon than young forests; the oldest forests sequester the most carbon. Unlogged forests sequester more carbon than well-managed forests. Forest liquidation releases massive amounts of carbon that could have remained sequestered for decades to come.

– Subsidies hide the fact that mega-biomass cannot attract savvy investors unless the public is forced to subsidize their investment. Why don’t we invest in solar and in value-added wood processing plants instead of subsidizing the burning of our forests at the lowest commodity prices?

– Gov. Sununu just signed a bill (Senate Bill 577) to continue the massive N.H. ratepayer subsidies to Portsmouth-based Cate Street Capital, owners of Burgess. Several years ago, Cate Street, then-owner of Great Northern in Millinocket, Maine, qualified for a $16 million “loan” from the State of Maine to turn the old paper mill into a wood pellet producer. A year later, Cate-Great Northern declared bankruptcy, abandoned the pellet project, forfeited on repaying the state loan and stiffed the IRS out of $1.5 million in taxes. Eventually, the IRS went after the impoverished community of Millinocket for Cate’s back taxes.

– In Coos County, unregulated liquidation logging is scarring the landscape. “Green Certified” Yale University, with an endowment in excess of $25 billion, has liquidated several hundred acres around Millsfield Pond. Satellite photos reveal that the owners of the Balsams forest in Dixville Notch, land on which the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests owns a conservation easement, have also liquidated huge swaths of forest. Two miles from my cabin in Stratford, a local contractor scorched 245 acres. Rather than ameliorate the problem of low-economic-value wood, N.H. energy and forestry policies are ensuring the perpetuation of so-called junk wood.

The forests of Coos County could make a huge contribution to reducing carbon emissions and sequestering large amounts of carbon if they were protected from liquidation logging. Healthy forests also provide clean water and complex habitat for climate-stressed species native to N.H. forests. Until the state regulates destructive forestry, carbon pollution from biomass will continue to be a major contributor to global warming, and our local economy will face a bleak future.

In the interest of democratic discourse and public education, we need a public debate over mega-biomass, unregulated forest degradation and a genuine low-carbon energy policy. I urge Doscher and the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests to convene, or participate in, such a debate with climate/energy/forest experts and folks like myself who must live among the ruins of Coos forests in the name of “jobs” and so-called “carbon neutral” biomass.

(Jamie Sayen, author of “You Had a Job for Life,” an oral history of the Groveton paper mill, UPNE 2018, recommends an important new film about the ecological, cultural and economic costs of mega-biomass: “Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?” Produced by Marlboro Productions, the film is currently touring New Hampshire and other New England states.)