Manomet comments illustrate polar viewpoints

By Lisa Gibson
Posted August 23, 2010, at 3:50 p.m. CST

The Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences' biomass study should either be thrown out or expanded upon because its parameters are much too narrow to be useful in the real world, according to a letter to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) submitted as a public comment on the study. Its writer, consulting forester Mike Leonard, goes on to outline major flaws in the study including the fact that it doesn't take into account much of the waste wood the proposed biomass power facilities in the state would use.

The comment period on the controversial study, as well as subsequent public meetings the DOER held to discuss it, is up and all comments are posted online. "Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study," conducted by the Manomet Center with the help of the Forest Guild, Pinchot Institute and others, found a complex debt-then-dividend model for woody biomass carbon impacts. The Massachusetts DOER will take the results into account as it crafts its new renewable energy policy, determining if woody biomass has a place in its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) regulations. If not, biomass will not receive renewable energy credits, making the resource uneconomic and effectively ending biomass power in the state.

But the biomass industry, along with some supportive members of the public, has raised some important concerns with the analysis, including the feedstock taken into account. "First, it appears that the focus was on the harvesting and burning of whole tree chips as opposed to waste wood, such as tops, branches, etc.," one comment letter reads. "I think this skews the study and I hope it was not an intention from the start. I'm wondering what the Commonwealth bought." The study did take slash into account along with whole trees, but stopped short of analyzing a feedstock composed of only residues and slash.

The same letter laments the statement released by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles that requests swift policy change in light of the findings, which he says changed the policy landscape for woody biomass energy production. That letter was sent to the DOER two days before the comment period was initially scheduled to end, and a month before it actually did. Bowles' letter indicates a lack of concern or consideration for the public comments, according to many biomass industry professionals. In his letter, Bowles requests final standards be drafted by Oct. 31 of this year and final regulations be put in place by Dec. 31 of this year.

Another comment submitted by Leonard is directed at the behavior of boisterous anti-biomass groups at the public meetings held in July. "…the anti-biomass extremists didn't pay attention to the ground rules and began to cry about fictitious health risks and imaginary forest depletion," he wrote.

But in fulfilling most expectations, many comments submitted about the study and meetings push for the end to biomass power in Massachusetts and the immediate cessation of the handful of plants being developed now. "The state has to think of its citizens and their health and not allow biomass plants in Massachusetts," one comment reads. "The Manomet study used unreasonable assumptions to make forest burning biomass look ‘less bad' than it really is," it continues later. That argument can be found in several of the comments.

One letter in what appears to be a child's handwriting reads, "I'm asking you to stop the biomass plant in Russell (Mass.). It is an awful thing with harmful chemicals. I'm so afraid that the chemicals might have a spill. That would kill people so fast that the rescue workers couldn't get there in time. The chemicals released into the air is frightening." Some even go so far as to personally attack heads of companies looking to develop in the state.

A comment from Massachusetts Forest Watch says despite the study's flaws, the state of Massachusetts deserves congratulations for "courageously calling out the naked emperor on his fantastical claims that forest burning is carbon neutral." It continues, "This important shift may literally help the entire world step back from the suicidal notion of burning its forests for energy."

The comments on the site are listed separately for the study and for the public meetings. The policy-making process will begin this fall, according to a DOER spokeswoman.