Late last spring, in a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation, the U.S. Senate passed a far-ranging energy bill. Led by Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and several of their colleagues, the bill included a unanimously adopted amendment recognizing the renewability and carbon benefits of biomass energy derived from wood and plant material. The amendment requires the Environmental Protection Agency to recognize biomass as a renewable energy resource, much the same as wind and solar.

Now the Congress has reconvened, and the House-Senate Conference Committee should do its job and keep the biomass amendment in the energy bill.

Critics claim that lawmakers have gotten out in front of science and that there is not enough evidence to definitely prove the environmental benefits of biomass. They are wrong. Science recognizes that biomass is a well-established way to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, say Steve Shaler, director of the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, and Roger Sedjo, senior fellow at Resources for the Future, among others.

They cite a recent peer-reviewed study from the University of Illinois that concluded that electricity derived from popular biomass products is 74 to 85 percent less carbon-intensive than coal-based electricity, just one recent entry in the large and growing body of literature that demonstrates that biomass helps reduce greenhouse emissions. They also cite a recent letter from more than 100 of the country’s pre-eminent forestry experts to federal regulators that calls the carbon benefits of biomass “well established.”

Biomass is often derived from bark, sawdust, tops of trees and low-quality wood not suitable for building homes or furniture. It can be used in place of fossil fuels to produce heat and electricity, resulting in significantly fewer emissions than conventional energy sources. In fact, biomass produces 27 percent of Maine’s electricity, and 1,300 people are employed in its production. Another example of biomass use is in the manufacturing of wood pellets, made in four Maine plants and others throughout the country.

Using biomass for energy also contributes to the health of our forests. When biomass is removed from growing forests, the remaining trees are helped to grow larger and remain healthy.

It’s amazing to realize that American forests have increased in volume by 50 percent since the 1950s, which is a major reason why biomass provides such significant carbon savings. New trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere, thereby reducing the total greenhouse gas emissions coming from biomass. In fact, say Shaler and Sedjo, “the net growth in U.S. forests offsets 13 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions annually.”

This is where biomass and Sens. Collins’ and King’s amendment come in. The amendment recognizes the carbon neutrality and renewability of forest biomass.

As others have pointed out, the lack of a clear federal standard on biomass has resulted in uncertainty about investment in our mills. Furthermore, the loss of biomass markets negatively affects those who harvest wood, those who truck it to the mill and those who manage the forests, the foresters and landowners. This makes biomass significantly different from other renewable energy resources, which result in few jobs once they are built.

Today and going forward, we need to encourage all the potential market opportunities for Maine wood if we are going to maintain our forestland and have a healthy forest products industry. As large and small landowners understand, active, sustainable forest management means harvesting trees. This contributes to the health of forests and their carbon-capturing abilities, today and into the future, and means that the income from these harvests gives landowners the ability to continue to own the land.

Biomass energy means less use of fossil fuels, healthier forests and a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, exactly the sort of clean energy option that those looking for real solutions to climate change should be championing.

Sherry Huber, a former Republican legislator, owns an American Tree Farm System-certified tree farm in Falmouth.

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