Environmentalists and the timber industry are taking their long-running battle over biomass energy into the Senate climate debate.
At issue is how legislation being written by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) will treat the harvest of forest materials for biomass-power production in the bill's renewable-energy sections. The bill is scheduled for release Monday.
Nearly 100 forestry organizations urged the three senators this week to place no limits on the harvest of biomass from private property. Signing the letter were timber giants Weyerhaeuser Co. and Plum Creek Timber Co.; trade groups, including the American Forest Resource Council and the National Alliance of Forest Owners; and utilities like Duke Energy Corp. and Xcel Energy Inc. that have invested in wood-biomass electricity.
The imposition of new biomass regulations on the industry would add costs and discourage the harvest of forest wastes, said Dan Whiting, spokesman for the National Alliance of Forest Owners.
"If you start layering on new regulations and sustainability standards, landowners are just not going to participate because at some point it won't be profitable," Whiting said.
The Senate bill should maximize opportunities for private foresters to sell timber products, or else landowners will find it more profitable to sell their properties to developers, Whiting warned. "If there's not a market for those trees, they're going to use that land for something else," he said.
The best way to protect the climate is to give private property owners, who control 57 percent of the nation's forests, financial incentives to keep their trees standing, Whiting said.
The House-passed climate bill contains several incentives for biomass harvesting, including a renewable energy standard and a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions that would not require biomass-electricity plants to buy emission credits.
That bill -- sponsored by Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts -- would ban biomass extraction on federally designated wilderness tracts and "roadless" areas, but it includes an amendment from House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) lifting harvest restrictions on private property.
The Peterson amendment won key votes for the climate bill from farm-state moderates last summer, but it infuriated environmental groups.
"The heart of the issue is that climate and energy legislation -- putting a price on carbon, creating a renewable energy standard and a renewable fuel standard -- all does one thing: It puts an enormous new pressure and incentive to use biomass to create energy," said Franz Matzner, a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Guidelines mandating "sustainable forestry" could ensure biomass energy is clean energy, Matzner said, but without the guidelines, the climate bill could become a massive driver of deforestation.
Clearing forests to generate biomass fuel would quickly outpace environmental gains from the switch to biomass from fossil fuels, said Michael Degnan, a Sierra Club policy analyst.
But Whiting said market realities would prevent deforestation as landowners keep trees to protect long-term yields.
"The reality is that markets for forest products are the reason we still conserve forests," Whiting said.
Degnan called trusting the foresters on that matter is a "big gamble."
"If we're confident that foresters want to use sustainable management practices," Degnan said, "then why not embrace safeguards precisely designed to ensure this sustainability?"