Rachel Smolker: Burning biomass is not carbon neutral

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rachel Smolker, who is a co-director of Biofuelwatch. She has researched, written about and campaigned against large scale bioenergy and its negative impacts on public health and the environment. She has a Ph.D. in biology/ecology from the University of Michigan. She is on the steering committee for Campaign to Stop GE Trees, is a board member for Global Forest Coalition, and is a founding member of the Hinesburg group Protect Geprags Park.

As codirector of Biofuelwatch, an organization that has dedicated a huge amount of time and energy into trying to myth bust the burning of trees as “renewable energy” over the past decade, I was thrilled to read Mr. Ohanian’s Jan. 27 critique of Middlebury College’s claims about its biomass plant (which by the way mirror neutrality claims made by the city of Burlington, where McNeil generating station burns biomass and wrongly claims it is “neutral”). We need to keep busting that myth over and over again for the reasons stated.

Unfortunately, a sad reality is that burning biomass is the most convenient “renewable” subsidized as such, because it is combustion — like coal. Large coal plants like DRAX in UK for example, can retrofit to burn wood with or instead of coal, and provide “baseload” power. Burning biomass is polluting like coal too, in fact it emits more dangerous particulates even than coal (per unit of power generation). The darn thing of it is that so long as the carbon accounting skullduggery is maintained, there will be the myth that we are reducing CO2 even as we are making matters only far worse.

We have to face the reality that is fundamental law of physics: There is no such thing as “free energy.”


Even the International Panel on Climate Change has been sipping the biomass Kool-Aid. They are now including “bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration” into most of their models for trajectories to achieve various levels of greenhouse gas stabilization. They say it will be not just carbon neutral, but carbon “negative” because the CO2 from a supposedly neutral process will be captured and buried underground. There are so many problems with this — please read more here if you are interested — but fundamentally if biomass burning is not carbon neutral it can never be carbon negative. Besides that, there are no commercial-scale facilities in existence and the process for carbon capture is technically very costly, energy demanding and unreliable, so we are banking our future on a total fantasy technology. Finally the few places where CO2 is captured (from corn ethanol refineries), it is used for enhanced oil recovery

However, when I got to the end of Mr. Ohanian’s otherwise great commentary, I felt terribly let down as he offers up natural gas as a better alternative to biomass for Middlebury College. Let’s not deceive ourselves about natural gas either. Sure there is less CO2 emitted, but natural gas is essentially methane, which is another very potent greenhouse gas, far more potent that CO2. We know now that atmospheric spikes in methane we are seeing right now are related to the fracking boom, and we also know that one of the quickest ways to slow climate change would be to focus on shorter-lived gases like methane. So let’s not be supporting another form of dirty energy. Right now we are fighting hard against a fracked gas pipeline under construction through our state, where fracking is banned. Let’s not work at odds. But we cannot continue to play “energy whack a mole” or “pin the tail on the truth about energy” any longer. We have to face the reality that is fundamental law of physics: There is no such thing as “free energy.”

Let’s not engage solely in picking our energy poison, but instead engage in a much deeper discussion about how to use way less energy, set equitable priorities for its use, distribution and control, and embrace “system change not climate change.”

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.


Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Rachel Smolker: Burning biomass is not carbon neutral"
  • Dave Bellini

    Every form of power generation has a protest group. Nuclear, coal, wood, windmills, solar, hydro, gas……. all have detractors. Don’t wear fur either. Oh and wool makes folks itch.

  • Ray Mainer

    No wood, no gas, no fracked oil, no coal, no nukes, the sun doesn’t shine in the winter and the wind only blows some of the time, so we should live in the cold.

  • Older Vermonters have no doubt whatever that trees grow back. You can cut and burn trees at the same rate they grow, and it IS sustainable, not raising the CO2 in our air long-term. That is totally different from burning fossil fuel, which permanently raises CO2. We do not need to “engage in a much deeper discussion”. We desperately need to tax fossil carbon very seriously. Then, instead of “having much deeper discussion about how to use way less energy, set equitable priorities for its use, distribution and control, and embrace system change not climate change”, we will actually DO it.

    • Arthur Hamlin

      Bill, can you explain why you say burning wood doesn’t increase C02 in the long term? I’m honestly curious, not arguing.

      • Moshe Braner

        Because wood grows back. In a mature forest trees die and rot (releasing the carbon) as fast as other trees grow. If you harvest selected trees for firewood it can actually increase the growth rate of the remaining trees, absorbing carbon.

        The real problem is that the human population on the planet is several times what can be sustained, no matter what energy sources you use. E.g., if Bostonians were to outbid Vermonters for the limited amount of sustainably harvested firewood from Vermont forests, where would we be?

  • Arthur Hamlin

    I’ve never understood the attraction to burning wood. I thought the 19th century was over. I can tell you when our neighbors have their wood stoves (or WORSE, their fire pits!) going the whole neighborhood stinks and I worry about my daughter’s asthma.

    In the summer I’m forced to keep the windows closed, but even in the winter with our house’s air/heat exchanger that has filters, I can still smell the smoke from their wood stoves.

  • Sandy Jensen

    My friend, in socio-envirol issues, it’s very difficult to separate opinions from passions. When your opinions go astray of Nobel prizes and the ISO, it’s a good indication that you may have overlooked some key science along the way. This is not meant to be an insult. I encourage your to publish your evidence, stand up at the numerous regional conferences on the subject and facilitate and educate others why you feel that issues of carbon flux are not as the IPCC 2006 guidelines suggest.

    Also, it would also be best to separate your biofuel objections from your carbon sequestration ideas. These are two separate issues. The Carnegie Council (ethics in international affairs) has recently launched the Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative lead by Janos Pasztor. That would be a great forum for you to join.

    Better aligning your area of concern with your area of influence will be more rewarding and effective than rudderless discussions

  • edward letourneau

    So is she telling us that forest fires caused the warming that melted the mile thick ice sheets that covered 1/3 of planet earth 20,000 years ago? Seems like the cause of that warming and survival of life on the planet ought to be understood before assuming that more CO2 will cause warming and destroy the planet.

    • Matt Davis

      Milankovitch cycles are responsible for the natural warming/cooling cycle observed in Earth’s recent geologic history. The recent perturbation to that trend is due to human activities.

      • edward letourneau

        Milankovitch cycles are still a theory and not proven. However, what the known warming does prove is that there is no danger. Life survived greater warming then will occur with the as yet unproven, CO2 induced warming.

        • Randy Jorgensen

          And it appears NASA has been fudging the numbers to promote wealth redistribution….

          • John Greenberg


            The Daily Mial article contains multiple errors.

            Please see:

            It links to a factcheck:, to an article on sea surface temperature published by the American Meterological Society, to a blog critique here:, which links to another here:

            Finally, here’s the Guardian on the author of the Daily Mail article: “The author of the recent attack piece, David Rose … has a history of denying the well-established science of climate change. He has a long history of making incorrect climate change statements.”

          • Randy Jorgensen

            So you saying the whistle blower is dishonest? A man whom Obama gave a medal for his work ‘to produce and preserve climate data records’.

            Then you go on to link to a blog that is funded by Global Climate Foundation ? (The ECF was established in early 2008 as a major philanthropic initiative to promote climate and energy policies that greatly reduce Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and to help Europe play an even stronger international leadership role to mitigate climate change. )

            So there is nothing biased there?

            Then another link by “The Guardian” another left leaning cozy place. “in accordance with a features editor’s assertion in 2004 that “it is no secret we are a centre-left newspaper.”


            Then go on to tarnish Davis Rose as being a “denier” because he’s part of the 3%, because he reported on something that doesn’t fit into the status quo.

          • JohnGreenberg


            Neither I nor the Guardian challenged Bates’ credentials in any way. The
            Guardian story specifically notes that he “was never involved any part of the
            work” discussed in the Mail.

            Today’s Rutland Herald reports: “Bates said in an interview
            Monday with The Associated Press that he was most concerned about the way data
            was handled, documented and stored, raising issues of transparency and
            availability. …However Bates, who acknowledges that Earth is warming from
            man-made carbon dioxide emissions, said in the interview that there was “no
            data tampering, no data changing, nothing malicious.”

            “It’s really a story of not disclosing what you did,” Bates said in the
            interview. “It’s not trumped up data in any way shape or form.”

            The Mail wrote: “Bates … has shown The Mail … irrefutable
            evidence that the paper was based on misleading, ‘unverified’ data,” and its
            headline calls the data “manipulated.”


          • JohnGreenberg


            In addition to imputing to me and to the Guardian attacks on
            Bates we never leveled, you ignore the issues raised by the Guardian AND
            supported by external links in your attempt to smear the Guardian as
            “left-wing” and “funded by Global Climate Foundation.” Are we to suppose that the Daily Mail is a
            paragon of objective truth?

            Apparently unlike the Daily Mail, the Guardian’s journalism
            can actually withstand fact-checked from independent sources. Indeed, for just this reason, I provided a
            set of links above, which debunk claim after claim made by the Daily Mail
            article. The Icarus link, for example is from a scientist who, unlike Bates,
            DID work on the project. When you follow
            ITS links, you get yet more debunking through another set of links, with yet
            more links. Follow the chain as far as
            you like.

            I’ll be happy to stipulate that there are NO objective
            sources if you’ll take the time to actually analyze WHAT is said, rather than
            just its source. Deal?


          • David Bell

            Curious, are you suggesting anyone given medals by Obama is incapable of dishonesty? Or that you think other people believe this?

            On that note, are you suggesting every scientific organization of national or international standing is a left leaning cozy zone?

          • JohnGreenberg


            Today’s Guardian has a follow-up story concerning this whole
            Bates controversy:

            Here are some high points: “Bates
            later told Science Insider that he was concerned that climate science
            deniers would misuse his complaints:” “I knew people would misuse this. But you
            can’t control other people.”

            “Scott Johnson summed up the fake news story perfectly in
            an article at Ars Technica:

            its core, though, it’s not much more substantial than claiming the Apollo 11
            astronauts failed to file some paperwork and pretending this casts doubt on the
            veracity of the Moon landing.”.

            Re the claim that the NOAA paper was rushed, the editor of
            Science: “The paper was not rushed in any way. It had an exceptional number
            of reviewers, many more than average because we knew it was on a controversial
            topic. It had a lot of data analysis”

        • Randy Jorgensen

          Pardon my typo… NOAA..

  • The most environmentally advanced countries in the developed world (Sweden, Norway, and Finland) all think biomass is a great way to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuel, so I’m going with that. In Finland they even reclaim fresh stumps for biomass prior to replanting. areas, while here Green Vermont, we cut and run. Wood uses carbon it scavages from the atmosphere, so your basic premise that all carbon sources have the same impact on the atmosphere is inaccurate.

  • Paul Hannan

    The real skullduggery is being perpetrated by anti-biomass zealots who equate burning coal with burning wood. Repeat after me: the carbon in coal got sequestered millions of years ago and will stay sequestered indefinitely unless it is burned. Same for oil. Same for natural gas. Wood’s carbon will release whether a tree dies and rots or is burned, with the same net effect adjusted for time and will be offset entirely by younger, vigorous forests sequestering that carbon all over again. You can argue nuances but you engage in “alternate facts” when you equate fossil fuels and wood.

  • Hans Ohanian

    Hello Rachel,
    Thanks for your comment. I sympathize with your complaints about natural gas. But I feel compelled to take my cue from Moniz, Chu, and Richter (all of them highly competent physicists, two of them Nobel-prize winners, and two of them ex-Secretaries for Energy), who all favor natural gas as the best option in the intermediate term, until we can achieve a complete elimination of all fossil fuels. I also sympathize with your desire for a drastic reduction of energy use, but I am doubtful this will happen anytime soon–just look at all the zillions of gas-guzzling SUVs cheerfully zipping along Vermont’s highways. A stiff carbon tax might help, and so would mandatory rationing (from WWII, some of us remember coupons for gas, shoes, chewing gum. . .). But today’s American public wouldn’t stand for any of that unless we first get clobbered by a string of Irene and Sandy superstorms, and the Mar-a-Lago palace of our tweeting Mussolini is under six feet of water, God willing.

    • A stiff carbon pollution tax would be great! But for some reason, people prefer paying income and sales tax and believe that fossil fuel company profit margins are sacred.

      • Randy Jorgensen

        Sounds like NH is the place for you…