Did you know that about a century ago Pennsylvania was stripped bare of nearly all of its trees? It must have looked like a moonscape. It was especially tragic because our state’s name reflects the wonder of its tree landscape.
Pennsylvania literally means “Penn’s woods.” Originally, 90% of the state was covered by forest, but intensive logging began in the mid 1880s. Pine went for ship’s masts, hemlock bark for leather tanning, and forests were clear cut to produce charcoal. By the 1920s, of its 28.7 million acres of forest, only a few hundred acres of old growth remained.
The Department of Forestry was created in 1902 to prevent Pennsylvania’s soil from washing into rivers and to reclaim other benefits of the forest. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to hire the unemployed to work on environmental projects during the Depression. They cleared debris and planted 50 million trees, so that today much of Pennsylvania has beautiful forests. My friend Jon told me that if you look carefully at the cornerstones of the shelters on Forbidden Drive, you will see they are chiseled with the date 1934 CCC.
Pennsylvania’s history is a reminder that while it may take only months to destroy a forest, it takes generations to replenish what we lose. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to learn. In recent years, the United States has been exporting wood to the European Union by deforesting our southeastern forests, particularly in North Carolina. According to a Nov. 2017 story in the Charlotte Observer, nearly 50,000 acres of forest are logged every year to keep up with the demand for pellets. Not only are precious trees cut, but habitats are also destroyed, watersheds are degraded and pollution increased due to logging and processing.
Today we herald biomass as a “sustainable” energy source; it provides about 24% of Pennsylvania’s renewable energy, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Along with incinerating garbage, biomass encompasses different sources of fuel, ranging from plant matter to residue from milling, post-consumer waste, and cutting down healthy trees.
In Pennsylvania, six biomass facilities run by Covanta burn municipal waste. According to their website, they process close to 21 million tons of municipal waste each year, conserving 25 million cubic yards of landfill space while generating nine million megawatts of electricity, enough power for one million homes. They accept just about anything, including plastics and pharmaceutical supplies. I hate to think of all the harmful chemicals that may be incinerated.
Another example of “sustainable” biomass is ethanol. Thanks to our politicians, it is nearly impossible to buy gasoline which does not contain ethanol. Yet, it contains less energy than gasoline because its combustion is incomplete. And ethanol costs more to produce, according to a 2009 report from the Organic Consumers Association.
When I think about sustainable energy, I think of solar and wind, occasionally geothermal. It’s hard to imagine biomass as “sustainable.” Thanks to the controversial film “Planet of the Humans,” produced by Michael Moore, I was reintroduced to the subject of biomass. Though much of the film is out of date, I was shocked to learn that cutting down trees for fuel was considered “sustainable.”
Wood pellets are a popular source of biomass fuel. Despite company claims, three quarters of wood pellets come from whole trees and only a quarter from wood residue. According to a 2017 report from Chatham House, an international affairs think tank based in London, energy from cutting trees is not carbon neutral.
Chatham House’s report is based on peer-reviewed scientific analyses, so it is quite credible. Because of wood’s higher moisture and lower energy content, it emits more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels, and 50% more than coal. Yet, biomass energy from cutting trees has a false reputation of being a clean energy source.
Even worse, the EPA allows biomass power plants to emit more pollution because they claim to be a minor source of it, according to Inside Climate News. As such, they have no limitations on the emissions of hazardous air pollutants. And biomass plants are dirty because they are inefficient, emitting nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide. In addition, transportation of the trees causes more pollution.
Hopefully, educating communities may stop some of the destruction of forests. People need to know that biomass is not sustainable and contributes heavily to climate change. We are losing the carbon sequestration of trees, especially in old-growth forests, since young trees sequester less carbon. Aside from planting trees to reduce greenhouse gas, we need to stop the destruction of our precious forests.