Biomass plan will undercut climate change efforts, critics say

The final draft of a Baker administration plan to designate a fuel derived from felling trees and clearing brush in forests as a form of renewable energy will undercut efforts to fight climate change, environmental advocates said Monday at a State House hearing.

The proposed rules, which could take effect this month, provide financial incentives for the energy source known as woody biomass — wood chips and pellets made from tree trunks, branches, sawdust, and other plant matter.

Administration officials have said that biomass is part of an effort to diversify the state’s energy consumption, and that over time, the fuel shouldn’t increase carbon emissions, especially when used in place of fossil fuels.


But environmental advocates have opposed the rules, saying they would increase carbon emissions, create more pollution in the form of soot, and lead to greater deforestation. Trees and plants grow by absorbing carbon dioxide; when they’re burned, they release the heat-trapping gas back into the atmosphere.

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“The proposed regulation amounts to a waste of scarce taxpayer and ratepayer resources for a highly polluting and greenhouse-gas intensive technology — funds that would be better spent on clean-energy technologies and energy efficiency,” said Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, an advocacy group that opposes the regulations. “Massachusetts residents deserve better.”

She and other advocates complained that the state was not allowing the public to comment on the final rules, which they said significantly expand the amount of trees eligible to be used, undercounts the emissions from burning them, and increases subsidies for biomass plants.

State officials dismissed their concerns, saying the process to establish the regulations has been open.

“The Department of Energy Resources conducted a robust, multiyear stakeholder and public comment process . . . and remains committed to diversifying the Commonwealth’s energy portfolio while reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.


At the hearing before the House’s Global Warming and Climate Change Committee, Patrick Woodcock, the state’s assistant secretary for energy, said the state has spent “a disproportionate amount of time reviewing comments and working with other departments on implementing the woody biomass component of the statute.”

He estimated that the new regulations could produce up to 14,000 new jobs, provide habitat for threatened species such as the New England cottontail, and make it less likely that landowners will develop their land by allowing them to make a profit from their trees. The state would review the regulations in 2020 and adjust them, if necessary, to align with new regulatory requirements or industry standards.

The state “expects that the sustainable forestry requirements will have positive impacts on the region’s forests and ecosystems,” Woodcock said.

Proponents of biomass consider it a form of renewable energy, so long as the removed trees are regrown. They note that the regulations would require that chippers, pellet producers, and other companies that provide fuel for biomass facilities use “sustainable forestry practices.”

Supporters also say that biomass can be used to displace fossil fuels such as oil and coal, and that there’s little threat of deforestation in Massachusetts.


“These regulations are the most rigorous and stringent of any thermal incentives in the country, maybe even the world,” said Charlie Niebling, a partner with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, an advocacy group that supports biomass.

Any risks to the environment were minimal, he added.

In 2010, a state-commissioned study found that biomass “generally emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced.”

But the study found that the overall impact on the state’s carbon emissions depends on how well landowners manage their forests, the technology and pollution controls used, and how long it takes to regrow the trees. Biomass for heating homes and businesses now accounts for about 1.5 percent of the state’s carbon emissions.

At Monday’s hearing, advocates raised other concerns about biomass.

Susan Masino, a professor of neuroscience at Trinity College in Hartford, cited research that showed that soot from biomass could cause health risks and lead to increased rates of autism, depression, and diabetes.

“We’re smarter than this,” she told the committee. “We all want to optimize our brain function, and public policies should support brain health as a priority.”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.