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Reversing the increasing trend in carbon dioxide levels that is driving climate change will require not only reducing emissions, but also finding ways to take carbon out of the air. As the recent Paris agreement on climate change recognizes, rebuilding the global forest carbon sink to maximize carbon uptake should thus be an international priority.

In contrast, amendment 3140 to the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S. 2012) now in the U.S. Senate, could reduce forest carbon storage and increase emissions. Introduced by Sen. Susan Collins and co-sponsored by Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines, the amendment dictates that the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies recognize bioenergy as “carbon neutral” – disregarding the fact that wood-burning power plants emit about 50 percent more carbon dioxide per unit energy than coal plants.

The EPA has stated that bioenergy is not carbon neutral by default, and has invested significant time and resources into evaluating the net carbon impacts of different types of biomass. Amendment 3140 would override EPA's science and treat all biomass as having zero emissions. Ironically, this is reminiscent of climate-change denial tactics. In fact, three out of the seven congressional co-sponsors on the amendment are climate change deniers — Daines (Montana), Mike Crapo (Idaho) and James Risch (Idaho).

Anyone who doesn’t believe there is a threat of large-scale deforestation to provide fuel for power plants or feedstock for cellulosic biofuels need only look to the Southeastern U.S. In that region, diverse bottomland hardwood forests and pine plantations alike are being cleared to provide millions of tons of wood that is pelletized and shipped overseas to Europe, the United Kingdom, Japan and Korea. The pellet industry has so alarmed U.S. pulp and paper manufacturers that they have complained to the European Commission — triggering an investigation into whether European Union subsidies for bioenergy are distorting markets and undercutting conventional users of pulpwood.

Montana once had vast old-growth forests that stored hundreds of millions of tons of carbon. Most of these forests have been cut down, and continuing industrial logging threatens to undermine carbon storage in second-growth forests. Meanwhile, the state has become a net emitter of greenhouse gases, making it critical to reduce emissions and maximize forest carbon storage. Montana’s forests are currently a modest carbon sink, but if wood for biopower and biofuels is treated as having zero emissions, demands on the state’s forests could well increase dramatically and decimate this vital reservoir of carbon storage.

Montana could be a leader in climate change mitigation, nationally and internationally, if policy makers adopted policies to maximize the ability of forests to store carbon. This transition is actually essential, because without such commitments, the Paris agreement will fail. The agreement acknowledges that emission reduction pledges now on the table are not sufficient to avoid a dangerous increase in global temperatures. As nations determine how to wring out more carbon savings, this much is certain – we cannot reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the coming decades by burning wood from forests, which increases power plant emissions and decreases forest carbon stocks. The atmosphere isn't going to get the memo that according to congressional legislation, bioenergy is carbon neutral.

Montana citizens should ask Daines to withdraw his support for the Collins bioenergy amendment — Amendment 3140 — and urge both Daines and Sen. Jon Tester to oppose any other legislative move that declares wood-based bioenergy “carbon neutral.” 

Mary S. Booth, PhD, is director of Partnership for Policy Integrity, a nonprofit organization that uses science, legal action and strategic communications to promote sound energy policy. She resides in Massachusetts.

George Wuerthner is senior scientist for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which promotes education and advocacy on behalf of wild Nature. He divides his time between Livingston and Bend, Oregon.

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