Of all the nutty things going on now in Washington - and there are plenty of them - none can compare with the current push toward replacing coal with “biofuels” in order to prevent global warming. Here’s what’s happening. Utilities that are currently burning coal are being told that they will be able to meet their “renewable quotas” and become “clean and green” by substituting wood chips, agricultural wastes, turkey droppings, dead trees or any other organic material. The logic is that all this will somehow prevent global warming.
You think I’m kidding? Not only is this written into both the Waxman-Markey Bill in the House and the Bingaman Bill in the Senate, utilities around the country are already putting it into practice. When Southern Utilities recently announced it will substitute wood wastes for coal at a 155 megawatt coal plant near Albany, Georgia, Climate Progress - the “indispensable blog,” according to Thomas Friedman - called it “the best and cheapest near-term strategy for reducing coal plant CO2 emissions,” short of closing the plants altogether. (http://climateprogress.org/2009/03/18/southern-company-biomass-georgia-power-coal-cofiring/).
To understand why this is happening, you have to enter the convoluted jargon of global warming enthusiasts. Biofuel, you see, is “young carbon” while coal is “old carbon.” To a chemistry student, carbon is carbon but that kind of common sense doesn’t apply anymore. Instead, the thinking goes as follows. Agricultural products are made out of carbon taken from the atmosphere last year. Coal, on the other hand, was made from atmospheric carbon millions of years ago. Therefore if we substitute young carbon for old carbon, we are “creating a zero carbon budget.”
The flaw of this logic can be revealed by asking a simple question, “What was happening to all that organic material before it was being incinerated?” The answer is, “It certainly wasn’t going into the atmosphere.” Most of it would lodge in the various carbon “sinks” that hold most of the world’s carbon. Dead leaves and forest wastes sit in landfills or decay into soil on the forest floor. Switchgrass would mulch and provide fertilizer for next year’s growth. Animal wastes might collect in huge piles on factory farms but it wasn’t being vaporized. Once upon a time, environmentalists led an effort to promote this kind of organic recycling. The whole “organic farm” movement was built on returning organic wastes to the soil. Now all this stuff will be thrown on the Environmental Bonfire.
Fueling the pyre will be the 17 percent “renewable portfolio standard” that is in the Markey-Waxman bill. Southern legislators have already been complaining they don’t have enough wind and sunshine to meet the requirement. Now “biofuels” will solve the problem. They can meet the standards simply by burning trees. As the Energy Information Administration notes on its website, “Wood is a substantial renewable resource that can be used as a fuel to generate electric power and useful thermal output. . . The Nation’s forestland (or timberland) is the primary, and in most cases original, resource base for fuelwood.” One recent study showed it takes 90 years to make up for the initial burst of carbon release that comes from cutting down a forest, but don’t worry - we’re thinking long-term here. The insanity of all this is that, at the same time, companies will be able to earn “carbon credits” for planting trees.
So where is this all going to lead? Power plants in Vermont, Minnesota and North Carolina are already making plans to switch from coal to wood and agricultural products. These waste streams are slim and widely scattered, however, and will only carry us so far. Pretty soon people are just going to start cutting down and throwing them on the fire, just like our pioneer ancestors. Burning trees was eventually curtailed by the Conservation Movement, which began to worry that the future of the forests. But then they didn’t have enough sense to know about “young carbon.”