Lost in the Woods: Senator Collins Repeats Weyerhaeuser's False Arguments for the Murkowski Resolution

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I spent most of the day watching the Senate debate on the Murkowski resolution and I’m very happy it went down to defeat 53-47. A victory is a victory, and this one provides real momentum for passing comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation this summer as NRDC President Frances Beinecke notes in her post.

Still it’s disturbing that a number of Senators who should have known better voted with Murkowski. Senators who voted in favor gave a variety of reasons, ranging from denying the science (Inhofe and Hatch) to wanting Congress to set the policy framework rather than leaving it to EPA (Murkowski, Rockefeller, and many others).

Senator Collins of Maine made a particular point of complaining about the way EPA plans to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from biomass combustion. Her talking points echoed very closely a letter to EPA dated May 24th, from Weyerhaeuser CEO Daniel Fulton, which said, in part:

We agree with the Administration that the science for addressing climate impacts is compelling and we continue to support Congressional action on climate and energy legislation. However, because EPA has taken the unprecedented and unnecessary action of including biomass GHG emissions in the tailoring rule thresholds, I am encouraging Congress to support Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s disapproval resolution on EPA’s GHG endangerment finding and regulation of GHGs under the Clean Air Act.

Weyerhaeuser’s argument is fundamentally flawed in at least three ways:

  1. Regardless of what Senator Murkowski and other supporters of her resolution say, the plain fact is that the Murkowski resolution of disapproval would have overturned EPA’s science-based finding that global warming pollution is dangerous to Americans’ health and to their environment.  If Weyerhaeuser agrees that the science is “compelling” it should have urged Senator Collins to oppose, not support, the Murkowski resolution.
  2. Weyerhaeuser’s claim that biomass combustion is always carbon neutral is patently false. While combustion of biomass from certain sources is carbon neutral, using biomass from others can add as much or more carbon to the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels. For example, waste biomass from a sustainably managed timber plantation can be carbon neutral, whereas timber obtained from clearing a mature forest for development can have higher net emissions than coal combustion. In fact, a leading group of scientists recently sent a letter to Congress to point out “the importance of accurately accounting for carbon dioxide emissions from bioenergy in any law or regulation designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy use.”
  3. EPA fully recognizes that biomass combustion should not be treated identically to fossil fuel combustion. Consistent with sound science, EPA has recognized that the environmental impacts of biomass combustion depend on the source of the biomass and has indicated in its response to Mr. Fulton's letter that it will seek public input, including from stakeholders such as Weyerhaeuser, before providing guidance on how emissions from biomass should be treated in regulations of stationary sources, such as paper mills.

Using EPA’s approach to regulating emissions from biomass combustion as an argument for supporting the Murkowski resolution may seem like it is in the weeds, but this is an important issue to get right in comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation. Senator Collins has cosponsored a bill to require reductions in carbon pollution and indicated today that she wants to work across the aisle to advance a bill. I welcome her involvement and hope that she will follow the science, not the timber industry’s false claims, when it comes time to debate how biomass emissions should be handled in that legislation.

This post originally appeared on NRDC"s Switchboard blog.