Burning Forests with the EPA
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its chief, Scott Pruitt, are doing the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing. Their latest action is one more in a series of potentially disastrous setbacks for the environment during the administration of the U.S. president, Donald Trump. If left unchallenged, the move could hasten the destruction of Earth’s forests, which are the planet’s primary cleaners of air, and accelerate the emission of carbon gases, which are its primary drivers of climate change.
On April 23rd, one day after Earth Day, an annual celebration of efforts to protect the planet, the EPA chief announced his decision to classify the burning of wood for the generation of electricity as, in his words, carbon neutral.
In announcing his decision before a group of forestry executives in Cochran, Georgia, southeast of Atlanta, Pruitt was pushing an argument that, because new trees can be planted to replace old trees which are cut down and used for energy production, the new trees will remove the carbon dioxide emitted during the conversion of the old trees into fuel. He was, also, signaling his intention to promote an industry for the burning of wood to generate electricity—called forest, or woody, biomass—at a time of rising opposition to other, fossil forms of fuel, particularly coal and oil.
The EPA Spurns Science
But Pruitt’s argument is rejected by growing numbers of scientists, who say that the EPA chief’s decision is based on politics, not on science.
The experts explain that, while biomass does not introduce new carbon dioxide into the planet’s natural systems, it does transfer the gas from forests to the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to climate change. Even if new trees are planted to replace the old trees which are converted into fuel, the new trees will need many years to reach the point at which they are mature enough to remove some of the gas from the atmosphere.
But, what if the new trees never reach maturity? How, then, will the new trees be able to remove the same amounts of carbon dioxide emitted by the old trees as they are burned to generate electricity?
In the end, the new trees may never reach the potential of the old trees.
Meanwhile, the old trees, as they are burned for energy production, release steady emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In fact, biomass releases more carbon dioxide per unit of thermal energy, which is often described as a British thermal unit, or BTU, into the atmosphere than coal, according to scientists. They point to the pounds (lbs.) of carbon dioxide per million BTUs released by each type of energy.
Source: Partnership for Public Integrity
Money and the EPA
Indeed, the problem is that biomass adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a critical time. It is a period in which the need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from all sources is becoming increasingly urgent in the fight against climate change. How, in this context, can biomass be, in the words of the EPA chief, carbon neutral?
In May, Pruitt was forced to appear before members of the U.S. Congress to answer charges of impropriety: He is accused of a series of violations of ethics, particularly in regard to his spending of public funds and his receipt of monies from sources in various industries, which his office is supposed to be regulating–a clear case of conflict of interest.
Already Pruitt has been found culpable, by a government accountability office team, in at least one case, in which he spent $43,000 on a sound-proof telephone booth for his office without notifying law-makers.
But the effects of the extravagant spending habits of the EPA chief are insignificant in comparison to the impact of his policies on the environment. From allowing big farmers to use powerful chemicals which kill weeds but which kill, at the same time, the bees responsible for pollinating many crops to permitting energy companies to drill for oil in delicate ecosystems, Pruitt not only is making decisions in direct opposition to the mission of the EPA. He is taking actions with dire consequences for the health of the entire planet.
EPA Chief Fights Back
Despite increasingly loud and frequent criticism of his performance as leader of one of the most important governmental agencies, Pruitt shows no signs of giving up his office. Indeed, at the May hearing with law-makers, the EPA chief said that he had set up a legal fund to fight any effort to remove him from office.
In the end, it will be a fight about money. But, it will be, nevertheless, an important fight. Any effort to remove Pruitt from office will be a critical step in a much larger campaign to overcome climate change deniers who would lead the planet down the path of destruction while they are working to remove barriers to profit-making for their allies in industry.