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Sen. King's Support for Biomass Bill Sparks Debate Among Environmentalists

Tom Porter
A biomass burner rises from Sappi North America's mill in Westbrook.

WESTBROOK, Maine - Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King visited Maine's oldest paper mill Friday to promote legislation he recently introduced that would classify sustainably-harvested biomass as a renewable energy source. King says such a move would benefit businesses in Maine by helping them come into line with federal standards.Some conservationists, however, are concerned that biomass can be as harmful to the environment as coal, when burned.

Sappi North America's mill in Westbrook first fired up its machines back in 1854. One-hundred-sixty-one years later, they're still going. The mill makes a product called Release Paper, which is used in the production of certain fabrics.

But this plant also produces power - enough to meet its own energy needs and put some back on the grid. Most of this energy is produced from biomass, typically the limbs or tops of trees that have already been harvested.

Sen. King says this is a renewable resource. "If there's anything renewable in this world it's a tree. They grow back," he says. "And what the mill is using to make its own energy is the waste products that don't go into paper, that don't go into lumber."

Sen. King toured the Sappi mill to highlight The Working Forests for Clean Energy Act. It's a bill that would classify biomass that comes from forests which are sustainably harvested as "carbon neutral."

Even though carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere when the biomass is burned, King says the carbon is being replaced because it comes from one of the healthiest and most sustainable of resources - Maine's forests. "There's more wood in Maine today than there was in 1850 when Thoreau climbed Mt. Katahdin in 1850," King says, "because of the amount of farms and fields that have gone back to trees."

King says the sutainable forest biomass industry makes up about a quarter of the state's total energy production, employing about 1,300 people and contributing between $100 million and $200 million a year to the state's economy. "And it's everything from the guys driving the trucks to get the biomass here, to the people working in the woods, to the people managing the plant here - it's a significant part of the Maine economy."

King says his bill would help businesses like Sappi by including sustainably-harvested biomass as a carbon-neutral renewable energy source under the Obama adminisration's new Clean Power Plan. The plan sets federal standards for states to achieve a 30 percent reduction in carbon pollution from the power sector by 2030.

Sappi spokesman John Williams - formerly the president of the Maine Pulp and Paper Industry Association - says having its energy classed as carbon neutral will have a clear effect on the company's bottom line. "The fact that biomass is carbon neutral, and therefore an alternative form of energy, helps with credits for electricity generation, where we're trying to promote renewables."

But classifying biomass as a carbon neutral source - alongside wind or solar - does not sit well with some in the conservation community.

"It's complex," says Andy Whitman. Whitman is with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. He says wood biomass is not inherently carbon-neutral. "When you burn it it doesn't turn automatically into trees again."

There's concern among environmental advocates that wood-burning power plants emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal-burning ones. Whitman says that, while the carbon dioxide produced by biomass is immediately released into the atmosphere, it takes some considerable time before the equivalent amount of CO2 can be re-absorbed through the growth of new trees. "As we all know it takes time to grow trees, and so you have this debt period in which you have to wait for that carbon to be recaptured naturally."

Sen. King, meanwhile, points out that this bill is only intended to deal with biomass which is already dead and decaying on the forest floor - and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. In that case, he says, it might as well be burned for energy.