Policy Group Asks FTC to Review ‘Misleading’ Green Claims About Biomass

A policy group is asking the Federal Trade Commission to scrutinize advertising claims by biomass plants that the energy produced is environmentally friendly and “green.”

Biomass energy is produced when wood products are burned in a power plant. There aren’t any large-scale biomass plants in Kentucky yet, but a company called ecoPower is building one in Eastern Kentucky.

Related: The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s March story on ecoPower

The report from the Partnership for Policy Integrity calls out ecoPower by name, along with 16 other companies that it said are using misleading claims to portray biomass as an environmentally friendly power source.

The Partnership for Policy Integrity asks the Federal Trade Commission to review those claims and take action to protect consumers from any further false advertising.

“We just feel that it’s never been more important than now — because of what we know about the accelerating case of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions from the power industry being such an important driver of climate change, that green power be represented properly and that we be aware of what its impacts really are,” said report co-author Mary Booth, who’s also the director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity.

The report takes issue with two claims in particular: that biomass is a low-carbon or carbon neutral option, and that the fuel is “clean.”

Two basic lines of reasoning underlie such claims. The first is that only waste materials—such as lumber mill shavings, paper mill waste and “forestry residues,” the tops and limbs left over after saw-timber harvesting—are used as fuel. It is argued that because these waste materials would have inevitably decomposed and emitted CO2, burning them as fuel in power plants emits no more CO2 than would have occurred anyway, and can therefore be considered carbon neutral. Additionally, some biopower companies claim that burning wood waste materials instead of allowing them to naturally decompose prevents the production of methane, a greenhouse gas with greater potency than CO2. As we discuss in more detail below, the problem with this argument is that while burning emits CO2 instantaneously, wood decomposition takes years to decades, and is in fact generally not a significant source of methane.

The second main argument for biopower being carbon neutral claims that when whole trees are used as fuel, carbon emissions are offset as standing and/or new trees grow and take up an equivalent amount of CO2 as was released by burning. The problem with this argument is that, again, burning biomass emits CO2 instantly, while regrowth takes decades, and in addition, harvesting forests for fuel compromises their ability to serve as a “sink” for atmospheric CO2.

The report estimates the net CO2 emissions from a biomass plant exceeded those from a coal plant for 10 years, and from a gas plant for 35 years.

According to data the report cites from the EPA, biomass plants also emit as much or more pollution (including particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide) as coal-fired power plants, and much more than natural gas plants.

In light of those facts, report co-author Kelly Bitov said companies portraying biomass as environmentally friendly doesn’t make sense.

“We’re asking the FTC to review these claims and make a determination whether or not there is deception occurring,” Bitov said. “We’re also asking for FTC clarification, how can biopower companies avoid making misleading marketing claims and comply with the Green Guides given what we know about the science, given what we know about emissions, how can marketing be true to reality?”

The FTC last revised its “Green Guides” in 2012; the documents clarify how companies can avoid making misleading or deceptive claims about the environmental benefits of a product.

EcoPower CEO Gary Crawford said Monday that he didn’t have any comment without seeing the report, which wasn’t made public until Tuesday.

UPDATE: The Biomass Power Association has responded to the report. I’m including the statement in its entirety:

The U.S. Government supports the use of biomass as a strategy for reducing carbon emissions. Biomass is responsible for 28% of the nation’s renewable power according to the National Climate Assessment 2014. No credible national organization has provided support to these claims, which have proven time and again to be factually incorrect
 

Biomass, the use of forestry residues and other unusable wood materials for power, is a strategy for reducing carbon in the atmosphere, widely viewed both in the United States and abroad as providing many benefits to prevent climate change. The alternatives to biomass power include options that are detrimental to the environment, including open burning of forest residues, catastrophic wildfires, and the increased use of fossil fuels.

Federal authorities like the White House, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognize the environmental and economic benefits of biomass. It is also categorized as renewable under the state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) where BPA members operate.

Here are a few examples of scientific, credible support for bioenergy from forest residues:

  •        The White House’s National Climate Assessment 2014 (May 2014): “Forest biomass energy could be one component of an overall bioenergy strategy to reduce emissions of carbon from fossil fuels, while also improving water quality and maintaining lands for timber production as an alternative to other socioeconomic options.”
  •      The EPA Clean Power Plan (June 2014): “America’s forests currently play a critical role in addressing carbon pollution, removing nearly 12 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year. As a result, broadly speaking, burning biomass-derived fuels for energy recovery can yield climate benefits as compared to burning conventional fossil fuels … Because of the positive attributes of certain biomass-derived fuels, the EPA also recognizes that biomass-derived fuels can play an important role in CO 2 emission reduction strategies.” 
  •      The USDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the biomass industry in September 2013 to support the use of biomass power as part of a strategy to reduce the risk of out-of-control forest fires occurring in overgrown forests across the country. Recently, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “USDA’s support for bio-based technologies is good for the climate, and enhances rural economic development while it decreases our dependence on foreign sources of oil.”

PFPI Report to FTC on Biomass Power Greenwashing

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

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