Get a FREE Issue of Earth Island Journal
Sign up for our no-risk offer today.

Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Latest News > Post and Comments

Latest News

Media Bias for Biomass Energy?

The majority of biomass energy reporting ignores the health and environmental impacts of this alternative fuel source

The media is finally starting to pay attention to the growing trend of cutting down forests for biomass energy. Unfortunately, according to a recent survey conducted by The Biomass Monitor, this attention seems to be biased.

In fact, 76 percent of U.S. daily newspaper articles covering forest biomass energy over a six-month period from October 15, 2014 through April 15, 2015 entirely ignore the health and environmental impacts of this controversial energy source, including air emissions, climate impacts, and ecosystem degradation.

photo of biomass power facilityPhoto by Josh Schlossberg The McNeil Generating Station, a 50-megawatt biomass power facility in Burlington, Vermont, and the subject of a PBS NewsHour segment that left out the air emissions and forest impacts of biomass energy.

Seven of the articles mention negative economic impacts of forest biomass, and four cover nuisances, specifically concerns with truck traffic and noise from chipping trees. These figures are specific to forest biomass reporting, and do not include coverage of corn-based ethanol or other types of biofuels.

In the US, bioenergy — the burning of trees, plants, manure, and other living “biomass” for electricity, heating, and transportation — provides more energy than any other alternative energy source. Despite the prominence and rapid expansion of bioenergy, largely due to federal and state grants, loans, and tax incentives, a 2014 Harris poll shows that 61 percent of Americans are unaware of its pros and cons. How much of this lack of understanding is a result of the media’s typically one-sided reporting on the issue?

Turning a Blind Eye

While only 19 of the 80 articles — 24 percent — mentioned the dark side of forest biomass energy, the negative health and environmental impacts of this alternative energy source are widely documented by recent science.

US Environmental Protection Agency emissions inventories and peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrate that biomass energy facilities emit high levels of carbon dioxide and nearly all of the same air pollutants as a coal-fired plant, such as asthma-inducing particulate matter and carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds. Biomass energy also consumes a constant supply of trees, the logging of which can degrade and compact forest soils and also cause erosion, silting fisheries and drinking watersheds.

While most of the daily news articles turn a blind eye to these negative environmental impacts, others make dubious assertions about the “green” credentials of biomass energy contradicted by large bodies of peer-reviewed science.

An article in the Bend Bulletin from Oregon and another in the Wichita Eagle from Kansas refer to biomass as “environmentally friendly,” without any scientific basis for this assessment. Despite EPA emissions data and numerous studies demonstrating the climate impacts of biomass energy, an article in Michigan’s MLive claims that burning biomass is “carbon neutral,” while the Times Argus from Vermont reports on a biomass facility’s supposed absence of carbon emissions. The News Tribune writes that Washington State officials are seeking to “improve” forests through logging for biomass energy, while Arizona’s Payson Roundup calls forests “dangerously overgrown,” concepts challenged by numerous studies on forest ecology.

“There’s a media blackout on the negatives of biomass energy and environmental subjects in general,” said freelance journalist and author J.L. Morin, who writes on energy and environment.

Fact-Checking?

The media imbalance on forest biomass energy isn’t limited to daily newspapers. In January 2015, PBS NewsHour ran a segment by William Brangham titled “Running on Renewable Energy, Burlington, Vermont Powers Green Movement Forward.” The title alone makes the assumption that biomass energy — which provided one-third of Burlington’s electricity — is somehow championed by the “green movement,” overlooking the fact that many environmental organizations and conservationists across the US are wary of and/or opposed to most forms of bioenergy.

The segment includes only one skeptical viewpoint, and even that individual neglects to discuss the air emissions and forest impacts of the 50-megawatt McNeil Generating Station biomass facility — the biggest polluter in Vermont — preferring to criticize hydroelectric dams.

In fact, the only mentions of air emissions or forests were factual inaccuracies that cast the McNeil facility in a better light than hard evidence reveals. Instead of making reference to the particulate matter, Volatile Organic Compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and dozens of other toxic air pollutants the McNeil biomass facility is permitted to emit on an annual basis — along with over 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide — PBS said that only “water vapor” is emitted from the smokestack. While whole trees are cut and burned in the facility, Brangham reported that the sole fuel source was “scrap” wood. 

After readers of The Biomass Monitor contacted PBS about the error, PBS offered a correction and deleted the errors from the video and transcript. Brangham wrote in an editor’s note on February 11 that, “after our initial broadcast, many viewers correctly pointed out that it’s not only ‘scrap’ wood that’s burned (some trees are also specifically logged), and it’s not just the very visible water vapor that’s being emitted (several additional pollutants are also released from this and other biomass facilities over the course of a year).”

In his editor’s note, Brangham agreed with critics who claimed that PBS gave an “overstated impression of the environmental attributes of the plant,” but the incorrect information had already been distributed to NewsHour’s million plus viewers. Further, the story had been picked up by countless media outlets and blogs and disseminated as memes over social media by a multitude of environmental organizations, few of whom followed up with a correction. The overall impression of the PBS piece on the general public is that biomass energy has no health or environmental impacts whatsoever.    

While this was most likely an honest mistake on the part of PBS NewsHour, the question remains: why didn’t the prestigious and well-funded news agency do any fact-checking regarding the impacts of biomass facilities, and why were no biomass opponents contacted for the piece? 

Straw Man Opposition

Just because a media source strives for balance in its reporting, doesn’t mean it achieves it. An April Al Jazeera America article by Tom Zeller, Jr. also focuses on Burlington, Vermont’s 50-megawatt McNeil Generating Station biomass facility. This article quotes employees of the biomass energy industry, along with a few apparent critics. Yet a closer read reveals that these ostensibly opposing viewpoints aren’t from local biomass opponents, but from out-of-state entities that don’t necessarily oppose biomass energy and instead advocate for a more “sustainable” form of the technology.  

Framing these entities as the opposition, the article extrapolates that environmental groups don’t oppose biomass energy at all, and simply want “stricter guidelines put in place … to ensure that biomass power producers, forest managers, loggers, landowners and everyone in the woody biomass supply chain, adhere to strict rules.”

Missing from the article were representatives of the over fifty grassroots organizations composing the national Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign, whose members “oppose all industrial, commercial and institutional burning of biomass and biofuels for energy.”

Instead of offering a true counterbalance to the biomass industry, why did the reporter only quote out-of-state sources who are simply supporters of “biomass done right?” 

Local Coverage Most Favorable

Several studies have analyzed US media coverage of biofuels, including corn-based ethanol, but very few have specifically examined biomass power and heating, which typically sources fuel from forests. And while media often has a negative slant when reporting on food-based ethanol, coverage of other kinds of biofuels like forest biomass – the focus of the research for this article – is generally weighted towards the positive. 

One study scrutinized Alabama newspapers’ reporting on liquid biofuels from 2007-2009, evaluating whether the tone of articles was critical or supportive, and which sources were quoted. The study focused on liquid biofuels like corn- and sugarcane-based ethanol, but also included media coverage of cellulosic-based biofuel (which include forest biomass), and the findings are likely applicable to liquid biofuels and forest biomass alike.

Study authors Dyer, Singh, and Bailey found that biofuels coverage at the local and state levels was typically positive and that “potentially important stakeholders were not given a voice.” For instance, the majority of the people interviewed for the articles were business owners or agency representatives, not spokespeople for “civic organizations,” the very individuals most likely to bring up problems with biofuels.

Significantly, when Alabama newspapers covered a biofuels project that had the  “potential for positive economic impact within their service area,” the reporting was typically more positive than stories of similar projects elsewhere.  

Reporting from national publications, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and New York Times, was more neutral and likely to be critical of biofuels.

Media as Growth Machine

Sixty percent of Americans have “little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly,” according to a 2012 Gallup poll. If the public perception of an unbalanced media is accurate, what’s driving this biased coverage?

In their analysis of media coverage of biofuels — which included, but was not limited to, media coverage of forest biomass — Dyer, Singh, and Bailey conclude that disproportionately positive reporting on biofuels at the local and state level may be linked to newspapers’ roles in “local growth machine coalitions,” tasked with attracting business to the area. Media support for economic expansion is logical, the study argues, in that “growth equates with job creation leading to population growth and possibilities of increased subscriptions (and consequent increases in advertising rates).”

Robert McClure, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit news organization Investigate West, and board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, doesn’t think the imbalance on biomass energy coverage in daily newspapers is intentional. Instead, he chalks it up to the fact that most papers nowadays are “resource starved,” both financially and with respect to time. For example, a journalist may receive a press release from a biomass energy company, said McClure, and “know they’ve got to make that other phone call, but they don’t have the time.” 

Other journalists think there’s more to it than that. “It’s not at all odd or strange that the corporate-funded news media would detail the positives far more than the negatives of biomass energy, or really any other business-centric topic,” said Steve Horn, an independent investigative journalist who covers energy, climate, and environmental topics in his work. “You don’t say mean things about those whose bread you eat.”

Chris Matera, founder of Massachusetts Forest Watch, whose work has called attention to the impacts of biomass energy, takes it a step further, saying that most media outlets are not operating in the public good and have become “distributors of misinformation,” angling stories to benefit corporate owners and advertisers. “If the public were told they are going to be forced to subsidize a massive increase of cutting and burning of forests to ‘help’ the environment, they would likely object,” Matera said.

None of the representatives of the biomass energy industry contacted for this article agreed to be interviewed.

In this age of worsening climate change, now, more than ever, the public needs to be informed about its many alternative energy options, all of which have their pluses and minuses, and which must be weighed accordingly. Whatever the reason for the media’s biomass bias, one thing is clear: The public is receiving an imbalanced and unscientific representation of it, one that largely omits the serious impacts on human health and the natural world — the very drivers behind the search for new energy sources in the first place.

Josh Schlossberg
Josh Schlossberg is a Denver, Colorado-based freelance investigative journalist, member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and editor of The Biomass Monitor, the nation’s leading publication investigating the whole story on bioenergy, biomass, and biofuels. He encourages you to contact him at thebiomassmonitor@gmail.com.

Email this post to a friend.

Write to the editor about this post.

Subscribe Today
cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJ cover thumbnail EIJFour issues of the award-winning
Earth Island Journal for only $10

 

Comments

When we began this fight to stop “fire fuels thinning” logging on public lands in Oregon and it’s bastard brother forest biomass incineration being glamorized by the biomass industry, big timber industrialists like Allyn Ford (Roseburg Lumber) and his buddies with the Nature Conservancy aided and abetted by Democrats like Senator Ron Wyden from 2006-2009 we knew it was going to be game changer for all forest ecosystems. However, over those 3 years a small group of us did change Oregonian’s public perception about forest biomass incineration mostly without the media on our side. The well funded Oregon forest conservation green-washers didn’t help out one iota and still won’t publicly oppose forest biomass incineration. Since 2009 we have launched a campaign at a local forest biomass incinerator with civil disobedience and direct action to keep the public enlightened on the folly of forest biomass incineration.
If our society allows the biomass industry to build massive forest biomass incineration/biofuels infrastructure across the country to turn our forests into electricity to power bigger TVs, electric autos, grow lights for marihuana farms, etc it could mean the end for all natural forest ecosystems and perhaps the entire biosphere. 
What’s the answer? Telling the American people the truth that the earth’s resources are running out, there is not technical fix other than methodically powering down, and methodically weaning off most luxuries we take for granted every single hour of every day. If we do this as a society/civilization we might be able to stop the killing of our host, the biosphere.

Civilization needs this antidote of truth and it won’t come from the mainstream media. It will come from letters to the editor, Guest Opinion editorials, and all the other tools in grassroots organizers toolbox including civil disobedience.

By Shannon on Tue, May 12, 2015 at 11:33 am

hey joseph zorzin,  really? “cutting trees is as ancient as mankind”?  what’s mankind?  when was the axe invented, the saw, the chainsaw?
yes, of course, not all logging is for biomass. the article did not say so,  you sound like a forestry school student. i suggest you check out the biomassmonitor.org before saying more about whether or not biomass burning is carbon neutral and while you are at it look up the definition of “biomass”.  all life on earth is biomass(biological material), even you.  burning biomass puts carbon into the air where we do not need it while removing it from the soil where we do need it to become future soil.  the timber industry has done what it does best co-opt a term, flip it to mean something new and green.  same goes for their propaganda that thinning is good for forest health.  thank god, we white people got to this continent in time to save the unhealthy native forests.  here in oregon clearcutting and thinning over the past 20 years is rampant.  so-called thinning can be whatever the timber industry wants it to be.  my forestland is adjacent to industrial timberland owned by Seneca, who built a taxpayer subsidized electric power plant in eugene.  i wonder if you, joseph, and others today even know what a natural forest looks like.  they barely exist anymore.  i would invite anyone to visit my forest and see the stark difference between it and the tree plantations lacking biodiversity next to me.

By jan nelson on Tue, May 12, 2015 at 11:12 am

I wish it were true that most of the logging was from “thinnings” but it isn’t.

While where you live in western Massachusetts much of the logging is not clearcuttting (largely because there are so many eyes who would object to clearcutting), much of the logging is destructive “high grading”.

Also there is an ongoing push by industry to increase clearcutting here with phony justifications meant to confuse a well intentioned public such as “wildllife enhancement” “forest health” and other Orwellian propaganda. 

But get away from the prying eyes, and there is much clearcutting in the northeast.  Outside of the tourist zones, Maine is practically wall to wall clearcutting. (See Google Earth.) Quebec is even worse.  Adirondack Park has many areas with 25 acre clearcuts, Northern New Hampshire has been aggressively clearcut, including White Mountain National forest behind the beauty strip, and even in Massachusetts, beyond the view of its citizens, the Quabbin watershed has been clearcut nearly down to the waters edge of Bostons drinking water supply.

See: 
www.maforests.org

I think your error Joe is to confuse the thoughtful, lower impact forestry you may do with the overall industrial forestry mindset which is get the cut out as cheaply as possible, particularly when the demand for wood increases, as it does with increased wood burning energy.

Maybe this site is also helpful:

http://www.globalforestwatch.org/map/3/35.22/-20.81/ALL/grayscale/loss/591?begin=2001-01-01&end=2013-12-31&threshold=30

By Chris Matera on Tue, May 12, 2015 at 5:14 am

I won’t debate whether or not woody biomass is carbon neutral- maybe it is, maybe not, the jury really is out on this. Yes, there are a lot of very smart people who don’t agree with you.

But, I object to “cutting down forests for biomass energy”- as if the forests are destroyed. In some cases that’s true, but in most cases it’s not- cutting trees is as ancient as mankind. Most wood that goes to a biomass plant is from thinnings, at least in the Northeast, not massive clearcuts. That thinning can be excellent forestry.

So, like I said, I don’t care to debate the carbon issue- even if we assumed biomass is not carbon neutral, even so, I’ll still argue against the assertion that all the cutting is just “cutting down the forest”. Such language doesn’t help your cause because most people who have any understanding of forestry know that’s not the case. Strictly from a forestry perspective, such cutting happens to be a good thing, most of the time. (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDSSBNyIRbE and https://www.facebook.com/media/albums/?id=107694529310729)
Joe

By Joseph Zorzin on Mon, May 11, 2015 at 4:39 pm

Until we restore government that serves the people rather than special interests, we will continue to see government subsidies for industries such as fossil fuel and biomass that are slowly killing us. See Fixing Our Broken Democracy at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCxLwCpJ2HI.

By Paul Lauenstein on Mon, May 11, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Thanks josh for exposing the well captured and corporately watered media. In the Northwest, from Northern California to northwest Idaho, the biomass raid is on. And, thanks to the bias of the media, hardly anyone is noticing.

Driven by Asian demand (power, pulp, and paper), chip exports from industrial and federal lands are rising dramatically. Outdated rail routes are being modernized, shipping terminals on the Snake and Columbia Rivers are bulking up, and regional ports are being deepened to handle bigger ships.

Obama was in Portland today working on the latest trade agreement, which aims to make the flow of raw logs and chips even more untouchable and subsidized. This effort is part of industry’s scheme to reduce parts of the Northwest to raw resource colonies.

As Josh points out in his excellent article, the media is mum regarding the big picture. Even more dismal, especially in Oregon, the legislature is owned by the same lords who plunder the forests and control the media.

As a longtime Northwest forester and activist, the only practical way I see to reform forest biomass plunder in this region is to robustly tax the harvest of younger trees. California, with forest practice laws that restrict premature harvesting, has the least amount of biomass logging going on and the smallest regional chip export volume.

Considering the resistance of Oregon’s timber dominated legislators to forest practice reforms, reform in Oregon will take direct action of the state’s citizens through the initiative process.

Winning a reform initiative takes me back to the beginning… kudos to Josh for airing the media’s bias!

Far more exposure and education will be required for Northwestern citizens to vote for protection measures for their forests.

By Roy Keene on Fri, May 08, 2015 at 4:40 pm

Metro Vancouver in British Columbia Canada are peddling garbage burners as “Zero Waste” with deep pocketed financiers calling energy generated from burning biomas and garbage “renewable energy”.

Major media outlets like the Vancouver Sun newspaper give coverage without any rebuttal.

Canada is being targeted by burner snake-oil salesmen and many elected officials are salivating over potential financial windfalls. Sadly they are targeting First Nations communities as well.

By Zero Waste Canada on Thu, May 07, 2015 at 5:02 pm

Some people might call it a media failure that tree-fueled biomass energy, one of the dirtiest, most carbon intense forms of energy that exists, has a “clean” and “green” reputation with too much of the public.

It is not a media failure, it is a media success when we realize that the mainstream media does not work for the public, or for uncovering the truth about matters of importance, and has in fact devolved into paid distributors of misinformation used to benefit their corporate masters. 

That so many can be led to believe that a drastic increase in cutting and burning of forests is going to “lower” carbon emissions, and “help” the environment, in spite of indisputable, strong scientific evidence and common sense to the contrary, is a sad testimony to this malevolent power.

This serious problem of media disinformation at the service of wealthy and powerful interests cuts across all issues of importance to the public. 

If called upon to do so by their paymasters, the presstitute media will diligently work to convince the public of anything, even that water runs up hill. 

With biomass energy, even the label biomass is indicative of the spin applied to most issues today. 

The public is misled to support projects against their own interests through industry funded, think tank created, focus group tested fuzzy labels like “biomass” and convinced that fact is fiction, and yet again, society marches off on the exact opposite path we need to be on, in order to do the bidding of a few self serving vested interests.

In this case, the timber and energy industries, with the crucial support of the presstitute media, have snookered a well intentioned public into thinking they are sacrificing to help our environment through “green” public subsides, but in reality, under a “green” guise, they are literally paying the planet wreckers to increase cutting and burning of forests, which is just about the worst thing possible for global warming, air pollution and forest protection.”

By Chris Matera on Thu, May 07, 2015 at 4:48 pm

THANK YOU for running this analysis.  We Zero Waste advocates get frustrated at how few journalists ask environmental questions about purportedly sustainable energy.  Once they get a bland reassurance, they stop asking.  Is it actually sustainable to burn discarded resources?  Well, no.  To keep manufacturers popping out new products, do the discards have to be replaced with virgin resources from the wild?  Well, yes.  But incinerators that burn garbage - discarded resources - are getting federal credit as sustainable energy sources!  Journalists don’t ask if the discards were turned into garbage by mishandling.  This analysis of biomass coverage is a terrific revelation about how much we need to rebalance the information so the public can see what’s really going on.

By Aunty Entropy on Thu, May 07, 2015 at 1:07 pm

Thanks, Josh. I am waiting for biomass promoters to further bring up environmental fluff like wood is pure, organic and healthy while we gag, gasp and cough in the smoke.

By Vic Steblin on Thu, May 07, 2015 at 11:19 am

Leave a comment

Comments Policy

Remember my personal information?

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

View Posts by Date View Posts by Author

Subscribe
Today

Four issues for just
$10 a year.

cover thumbnail EIJ

Join Now!

 

0.2792