Environment

Former EPA Science Advisory Board member and Duke professor reveals how the agency ignored science to favor wood-pellet industry

Bill Schlesinger recently left the EPA’s Science Advisory Board after six years. The Trump administration, he says, dismissed the expertise of the board and its subcommittees. (Photo: Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies)

Judging from an Oct. 23 blog post, Bill Schlesinger left the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, if not disgusted, at least dismayed.

The former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, Schlesinger recently rotated off the board after six years. During that time, the SAB devolved from advising EPA administrators on the thorniest environmental issues of the modern era to, under Trump and his industry-beholden appointees, shaking their fists at clouds. “Since the advent of the current administration, science has been ignored and marginalized,” Schlesinger wrote on his Citizen Scientist blog. “The SAB seems an annoyance, and new procedures are proposed to circumvent its use of the best scientific expertise and published science on important and relevant issues.”

Among those issues is whether to classify burning “woody biomass,” aka trees, as “carbon neutral.” Enviva, which operates three wood pellet plants in North Carolina — with a fourth pending —  chops up North Carolina timber, including hardwoods, into material that looks like dog kibble. The company then ships the pellets to the United Kingdom, where they are burned instead of coal. This is the UK’s way of meeting its “renewable energy” goals, but in fact, burning wood releases as much, if not more, carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change, into the atmosphere than coal. And when trees are cut, they release more. Even when the trees are replanted, it takes decades for them to absorb as much carbon as their ancestors.

Schlesinger is a former biogeochemistry professor whose recent work focuses on understanding how trees and soil influence atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. “Some of the issues concern the age of the existing trees that are harvested and how long it takes regrowing biomass to reaccumulate the carbon,” Schlesinger wrote. “It is also important to consider whether the biomass considered includes only the stands that are harvested or the larger balance of carbon on the entire landscape, which may be affected by many other factors.”

As a Science Advisory Board subcommittee deliberated wood-as-renewable-energy, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced in April that the agency considered woody biomass to be carbon neutral. “He had ignored the SAB process and what the SAB might have reported from a scientific analysis of the issue,” Schlesinger wrote. “I can’t say there is evidence that politics were involved—such as lobbying by the forest products industry—but it sure looked like it. Make America Great Again by harvesting trees.”

Make America Great Again by harvesting trees. Click To Tweet

Last week, shortly before the SAB finalized its scientific analysis, the EPA released the Trump administration’s alternative to the Clean Power Plan, Schlesinger wrote, again stating that burning wood for energy qualified as carbon-neutral. “My point here is that decisions are being made, not on the basis of a thoughtful and deliberative evaluation of the science, but on the ideological beliefs of the current administration in Washington, perhaps with the help of corporate influence.”

Since 2012, when Schlesinger joined the SAB under the Obama administration, he has seen the group of esteemed, respected scientists become marginalized. The number of requests for guidance “dropped dramatically,” Schlesinger wrote, “as did the number of times we actually met to conduct business.”

Wait until the nightmare is over Click To Tweet

“I have a dark message for other academic scientists who might think of serving on the SAB,” he continued. “… Unfortunately, the SAB is no place to serve if you value your time and potential contributions to protecting the environment of our nation. Wait until the nightmare is over.”

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