Headline updated at 5:01 p.m. EDT.
Frustrated by what they see as skewed news coverage of biomass, a coalition of forest industry groups is attacking media outlets, charging that reporters are giving free rein to environmentalists’ critiques of wood-fired power generation while ignoring evidence that the cultivation, harvest and burning of trees and wood waste to generate electricity does not exacerbate climate warming.
By writing letters complaining to editors and launching a new website called Biomass101.org, four national trade groups say they are working to "correct the record" of false and misleading claims appearing in newspapers and online media about biomass and the carbon cycle, including recent stories in The Washington Post, The New York Times and ClimateWire.
The carbon impact of burning wood pellets and other forest-based biomass in power plants has become a heated topic in the climate and forestry worlds, with some organizations, scientists and policy experts endorsing the practice while others remain skeptical or even opposed to the idea of using carbon-emitting biomass to generate power.
Critics, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Working Group, say that in an era of making deep cuts to carbon emissions, the burning of biomass is misguided because the very combustion of wood or wood wastes produces large amounts of CO2 that are emitted directly into the atmosphere.
But proponents, including Biomass101’s sponsoring organizations, say such views are flatly wrong. They argue that forests — whether newly planted or mature — act as carbon sinks that over time absorb as much carbon as is emitted from biomass combustion. The emission-absorption equilibrium is what advocates of biomass power refer to as "carbon neutrality."
Yet, while the scientific and policy debates around biomass and the carbon cycle remain in flux, there’s no refuting that biomass-derived energy is a growth industry that is drawing attention from both advocacy groups and news reporters.
Firms like Enviva LP of Bethesda, Md., a major U.S. exporter of wood pellets, and Drax Group PLC of the United Kingdom, a biomass energy producer, have been profiled in stories about rapid growth of the biomass energy industry.
Those companies, along with other stakeholders ranging from timber owners to forest products companies, also are vested in government policies that affect biomass power.
For example, U.S. EPA is considering whether biomass plants could be classified as carbon-neutral sources of energy under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. While EPA has suggested such decisions will be made on a case-by-case or state-by-state basis, any rule supporting biomass could have huge implications for the forest industry since new biomass plants would require large volumes of woody biomass annually to operate.
Finding ‘the truth’ in a high-stakes battle
Hence, the battle to shape public opinion around biomass has achieved very high stakes. And as with other major policy issues, the news media are often cast as friends or enemies of particular interest groups.
For Biomass101, the latest and highest-profile media target is The Washington Post, which on June 2 published a story detailing the emergence of wood pellets as an alternative to coal for power generation in the United Kingdom and Europe. The story, which cites a recent doubling in export volumes of U.S. wood pellets mostly from Southeastern forests, includes information from sources both supportive and critical of biomass for power, including one of the groups behind Biomass101.
But in a lengthy posting on its website, Biomass 101 accuses the Post and its reporter of relying on "faulty logic" about the carbon dioxide impacts associated with biomass for power generation. It also says the Post story contributes to "a pattern of major publications uncritically reporting distortions of the carbon cycle and responsible forestry that don’t stand up to basic scrutiny."
"To read some of the press — informed by one-sided sourcing, cherry-picked statistics, and wild-eyed, far-fetched assumptions — you’d think that the future of biomass energy is a bleak and treeless world from a science fiction novel," the groups state on the website.
"But the truth is that the people using carbon-neutral biomass energy are America’s greatest forest stewards, who together are growing twice as much wood as they are harvesting, according to the US Forestry Service. Here in the real world, America’s forests are constantly growing, in large part thanks to the hard work of our community."
The organizations behind Biomass101 and the media strikes are the American Forest & Paper Association, the American Wood Council, Forest Resources Association Inc., and the National Alliance of Forest Owners. According to senior representatives at two of the groups, Biomass101 is the outgrowth of a loose affiliation among the groups, and it does not have its own leadership or charter.
"It’s really neither an organization nor a campaign. It’s an informal coalition of organizations with a desire to put out the facts and set the record straight," Chuck Fuqua, executive director of strategic communications at AF&PA, said in a telephone interview.
Biomass101 has also hired a bare-knuckles public relations firm, CounterPoint Strategies, whose reputation is for aggressively challenging media companies and reporters on behalf of clients who believe they or their causes have been unfairly or inaccurately portrayed in the media.
Hired ‘conduit’ goes after ‘repeat offenders’
A CounterPoint vice president, Dan Foster, has also written correspondence on behalf of Biomass 101, including a letter to management of Environment & Energy Publishing LLC, publisher of ClimateWire, alleging that two recent stories in the online newswire violated principles of fairness and accuracy in journalism.
As with its criticism of The Washington Post, Foster wrote that two ClimateWire articles published last month revealed a bias toward environmentalists’ views of biomass, while applying more scrutiny to an industry-backed study published by Duke University, "whose conclusions run counter to the advocacy group’s claims."
"How do you explain the double standard?" Foster wrote.
E&E Publishing editors and senior management defended the coverage, saying it reflects current scientific debate and policy discussion around biomass and carbon emissions.
Foster, who formerly worked as a news editor for the National Review before joining CounterPoint two years ago, said in a telephone interview that his role is to be a "conduit" between clients and media outlets. Foster said he has "a couple of years working on forestry issues" and has authored editorials in the past on environmental policy issues.
With respect to media coverage of forestry and carbon neutrality, Foster said he doesn’t believe there is a conspiracy among news outlets to ignore or misrepresent his clients’ views. But, he added, "there are just repeat offenders, and there are outlets through experience we’ve learned are not interested in reporting it straight."
He would not disclose which media outlets fall into those two categories but referred back to the Biomass101 website. There, in addition to The Washington Post, the group cites what it considers unfair or unbalanced coverage by Al Jazeera, Forbes, The New York Times and The London Telegraph.
Ellen Shearer, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and chairwoman of the school’s Washington and Special Programs department, said in an interview that some public relations professionals and interest groups are adopting a more aggressive approach in dealing with reporters and media outlets over perceived sleights.
Interest groups are increasingly of the belief that "if we don’t like what the media is saying, instead of trying to change their minds … we’re just going to bypass them," Shearer said, adding that elected officials are also adopting the strategy with greater frequency. Such groups are also making use of technology such as the Internet and social media to disseminate challenges to journalists.
Fuqua and Gretchen Schaefer, vice president of communications for NAFO, said their organizations decided to adopt a war footing with those media organizations to counter what they believe has been a persistent reporting bias against using biomass as an alternative to fossil fuels to produce energy.
"It is an imbalance that we’ve seen in the reporting, and if you look at some of the articles we’ve cited on the website, it’s clearly spelled out," Schaefer said. "Our scientific voice is not being accurately reported or even covered at all."
That voice is represented, they say, by organizations like the National Association of University Forest Resources Programs, which last November submitted comments endorsed by 100 scientists to EPA stressing four "science fundamentals" for measuring the carbon impacts of biomass for energy.
One of those fundamentals, according to NAUFRP, is that "forest biomass energy yields significant net decreases in overall carbon accumulation in the atmosphere over time compared to fossil fuels." The group further notes that comparing the carbon impacts of biomass versus fossil fuels upon combustion or over brief periods "can significantly distort or ignore comparative carbon impacts over time."
Others who have endorsed the notion that biomass is carbon neutral include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, whose acting chief economist, Robert Johansson, last week endorsed the findings from the recent Duke study on European demand for wood pellets (Greenwire, June 10). In a blog post, Johansson wrote, "An industry that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase forest growth, and create jobs sounds too good to be true. But that is the reality of the emerging wood pellets market in the Southern U.S."
‘Many unknowns’ and an EPA policy void
Such views are not embraced by many other scientists, however. Seventy-eight experts in the fields of forest ecology, environmental science, engineering and public health wrote to EPA in February expressing strong reservations about policies that would encourage large-scale deployment of biomass energy plants (ClimateWire, Feb. 10). They argue, among other things, that the risk of a short-term surge in carbon emissions from biomass plants outweighs the promise of balance in the carbon cycle through forest regeneration.
Such disagreements, combined with a lack of clear policy direction from EPA, has prompted some forestry groups to take a wait-and-see approach to biomass.
Lea Sloan, vice president of communications for American Forests, a conservation group, said that her organization has supported biomass for energy in some instances, "but only where it is clear the practice will advance forest restoration."
As for the science, she said "there remain too many unknowns, differences in life cycle methodologies and time lags associated with pelletizing trees, regrowing them and taking credit for carbon neutral practices for us to take a definitive position on the matter. In the absence of better information, we do not have a position on the carbon neutrality of the entire wood to energy market."
John Barnwell, forest policy director for the Society of American Foresters, which supports biomass energy, said in a telephone interview that media stories on forest management and forest policy do sometimes fall short, especially when reporters try to draw broad conclusions based on observations or sourcing from a specific forest or geographic area.
But he said foresters and the forest industry also have failed to effectively communicate with the media about best practices and sustainable forestry techniques, allowing misconceptions and stereotypes about industrial forestry to remain intact.
"I wouldn’t want to paint it with too broad a brush," Barnwell said, "because part of this comes back to us from an education standpoint. If I were involved with Biomass101, I could see how that process could help to educate people. But I would also hope we did some other things to communicate what we do as a profession."