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Mining the soil: Biomass, the unsustainable energy source

Written by Atheo | Aletho News | December 26, 2009

The promotional material from Big Green Energy, aka Biomass Gas & Electric, presents biomass as “clean, renewable energy”, sustainable and green. The US Department of Energy uses the terms “clean and renewable” when introducing visitors at its website to the topic.

But is it accurate to describe the repeated removal of biomass from agricultural or forested lands as sustainable?

A quick review of some basics on the role of organic matter in soils belies the claim.

To support healthy plant life, soil must contain organic matter, plants don’t thrive on minerals and photosynthesis alone. As organic matter breaks down in soil nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur are released. Organic matter is the main source of energy (food) for microorganisms. A higher level of microbial activity at a plant’s root zone increases the rate of nutrient transfer to the plant.  As the organic matter decreases in soil so does this biochemical activity. Without organic matter, soil biochemical activity would nearly stop.

In addition to being a storehouse of nutrients, decaying plant matter keeps soil loose, helping soil remain both porous and permeable as well as gaining better water holding capacity. This is not only beneficial to plant growth but is essential for soil stability. Soil becomes more susceptible to erosion of all types as organic matter content is reduced.

The value of returning organic matter to the soil has been well-known to farmers since the earliest days of agriculture. Crop residues and animal waste are tilled back into the soil to promote fertility.

Denny Haldeman of the Dogwood Alliance asserts that there is no documentation of the sustainability of repeated biomass removals on most soil types. Most documentation points to nutrient losses, soil depletion and decreased productivity in just one or two generations.

A cursory search of the Department of Energy website does not reveal that they have given the issue of soil fertility any consideration at all. However the biomass industry is supported by both Federal and State governments through five main advantages: tax credits, subsidies, research, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and preferential pricing afforded to technologies that are labeled “renewable” energy. Without government support, biomass power plants wouldn’t be viable outside of a very limited number of co-generation facilities operating within lumber mills. But under the Sisyphean imperative of “energy independence”, and with generous access to public assistance, the extraction of biomass from our farmlands and public forests is set to have a big impact on land use (or abuse).

In sustainable farming, manure is not “waste”

The creation of an artificial market for agricultural “wastes” harms entire local agricultural economies. In Minnesota, organic farmers are concerned that a proposed turkey waste incinerator will drive up the price of poultry manure by burning nearly half of the state’s supply. The establishment of biomass power generation will likely make it more difficult for family farms to compete with confined animal feeding operations and will contribute generally to the demise of traditional (sustainable) agricultural practices.

Similar economic damage will occur in the forest products industries. Dedicating acreage  to servicing biomass wood burners denies its use for lumber or paper. Ultimately, the consumer will shoulder the loss in the form of higher prices for forest products.

As available sources of forest biomass near the new power plants diminish, clear-cutting and conversion of native forests into biomass plantations will occur, resulting in the destruction of wildlife habitat. Marginal lands which may not have been previously farmed will be targeted for planting energy crops. These lands frequently have steeper grades, and erosion, sedimentation and flooding will be the inevitable result.

It gets worse.

Municipal solid waste as well as sewage sludge is mixed with the biomass and burned in locations where garbage incineration was  traditionally disallowed due to concerns over public health. Dioxins and furans are emitted in copious quantity from these “green” energy plants. Waste incineration is already the largest source of dioxin, the most toxic chemical known. Providing increased waste disposal capacity only adds to the waste problem because it reduces the costs associated with waste generation making recycling that much more uneconomic. In terms of dangerous toxins, land-filling is preferable to incineration. The ash that is left after incineration will be used in fertilizers introducing the dangerous residual heavy metals into the food supply.

In reality biomass fuel isn’t sustainable or “clean”.

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Update February 3, 2011:

In a new study funded by the USDA Agriculture Research Service, scientists simulated experiments lasting from 79 to 134 years. Hero Gollany, the author of the study, summarizes:

“Harvesting substantial amounts of crop residue under current cropping systems without exogenous carbon (e.g., manure) addition would deplete soil organic carbon, exacerbate risks of soil erosion, increase non-point source pollution, degrade soil, reduce crop yields per unit input of fertilizer and water, and decrease agricultural sustainability.”

Update – Summit Voice, April 19, 2012:

Report: Large-scale forest biomass energy not sustainable

Forest biomass questioned as fuel source

SUMMIT COUNTY — Large-scale use of forest biomass for energy production may be unsustainable and is likely to increase greenhouse gas emissions in the long run, according to a new study.

The research was done by the Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Germany, Oregon State University, and other universities in Switzerland, Austria and France. The work was supported by several agencies in Europe and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The results show that a significant shift to forest biomass energy production would create a substantial risk of sacrificing forest integrity and sustainability… Full article

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Also by Atheo:

January 9, 2012

Three Mile Island, Global Warming and the CIA

November 13, 2011

US forces to fight Boko Haram in Nigeria

September 19, 2011

Bush regime retread, Philip Zelikow, appointed to Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board

March 8, 2011

Investment bankers salivate over North Africa

January 2, 2011

Top Israel Lobby Senator Proposes Permanent US Air Bases For Afghanistan

October 10, 2010

A huge setback for, if not the end of, the American nuclear renaissance

July 5, 2010

Progressive ‘Green’ Counterinsurgency

February 25, 2010

Look out for the nuclear bomb coming with your electric bill

February 7, 2010

The saturated fat scam: What’s the real story?

January 5, 2010 – Updated February 16, 2010:

Biodiesel flickers out leaving investors burned

December 19, 2009

Carbonphobia, the real environmental threat

December 4, 2009

There’s more to climate fraud than just tax hikes

May 9, 2009

Obama, Starving Africans and the Israel Lobby

December 23, 2009 Posted by | Author: Atheo, Deception, Economics, Environmentalism, Malthusian Ideology, Phony Scarcity, Science and Pseudo-Science | , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Bernanke and the Corruption of Washington Culture

By Dean Baker | The Guardian Unlimited | December 21, 2009

The Senate Finance Committee overwhelmingly voted to approve Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke for another 4-year term. This is a remarkable event since it is hard to imagine how Bernanke could have performed worse in his last 4-year term. By Bernanke’s own assessment, his policies brought the economy to the brink of another Great Depression. This sort of performance in any other job would get you fired in a second, but for the most important economic policymaker in the country it gets you high praise and another 4-year term.

There is no room for ambiguity in this story. Bernanke was at the Fed since the fall of 2002. (He had a brief stint in 2005 as chair of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors.)  At a point when at least some economists recognized the housing bubble and began to warn of the damage that would result from its collapse, Bernanke insisted that everything was fine and that nothing should be done to rein in the bubble.

This is worth repeating. If Bernanke knew what he was doing, he should have been able to see as early as 2002 that there was a housing bubble and that its collapse would throw the economy into a recession. It was also entirely predictable that the collapse could lead to a financial crisis of the type we saw, since housing was always a highly leveraged asset, even before the flood of subprime, Alt-A and other nonsense loans that propelled the bubble to ever greater heights. Of course as the bubble expanded, and the financial sector became ever more highly leveraged, the risks to the economy increased enormously.

Through this all, Bernanke just looked the other way. The whole time he insisted that everything was just fine.

To be clear, there was plenty that the Fed could have done to deflate the bubble before it grew to such dangerous proportions. First and foremost the Fed could have used its extensive research capabilities to carefully document the evidence for a housing bubble and the risks that its collapse would pose to the economy.

It then should have used the enormous megaphone of the Fed chairman and the platform of the institution to publicize this research widely. The Fed could have ensured that every loan officer who issued a mortgage, as well as all the bank officers who set policy, clearly heard the warnings of a bubble in the housing market, backed up by reams of irrefutable research. The same warnings would have reached the ears of every potential homebuyer in the country. It’s hard to believe that such warnings would have had no impact on the bubble, but it’s near criminal that the Fed never tried this route.

The second tool that the Fed could have pursued was to crack down on the fraudulent loans that were being issued in massive numbers at the peak of the bubble. It is absurd to claim that the Fed didn’t know about the abuses in the mortgage market. I was getting e-mails from all over the country telling me about loan officers filling in phony income and asset numbers so that borrowers would qualify for mortgages. If Bernanke and his Fed colleagues did not know about these widespread abuses, it is because they deliberately avoided knowing.

Finally, the Fed could have had a policy of interest rate hikes explicitly targeted to burst the bubble. Specifically, it could have announced that it will raise rates by half a point at every meeting, until house prices begin to fall and it will keep rates high until house prices approach their pre-bubble level.

This is what a responsible Fed policy would have looked like. But Ben Bernanke did not pursue a responsible Fed policy. He insisted that everything was just fine until he had to run to Congress last September, saying that if it didn’t immediately give $700 billion to the banks through the TARP program then the economy would collapse.

How on earth can you do worse in your job as Fed chair then bring the economy to the brink of a total collapse? If this is success, what does failure look like?

But, in Washington no one is ever held accountable for their performance. The economic collapse is treated like a fluke of nature – a hurricane or an earthquake – not the result of enormous policy failures.

So, it is the 15 million unemployed that go without work, not Ben Bernanke. Instead, the senators praise Bernanke to the sky and thank him for his service. The running line in the Senate is: “it could have been worse.”

That is the way Washington works these days. And, everyone should be very very disgusted.


Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, “Beat the Press,” where he discusses the media’s coverage of economic issues.

Source

December 23, 2009 Posted by | "Hope and Change", Corruption | 4 Comments

Bil’in leader charged with arms possession

By Adam Horowitz · December 23, 2009

Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a leader of the weekly nonviolent protests in Bil’n, has finally been charged after being arrested nearly two weeks ago by the Israeli military. Abu Rahmah’s arrest has been part on an ongoing Israeli campaign against Palestinian nonviolent resistence leaders. The charges against him could not be more creative. From a Popular Struggle Coordination Committee press release:

Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a school teacher and coordinator of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall, was indicted in an Israeli military court yesterday. Abu Rahmah was slapped with an arms possession charge for collecting used tear gas canisters shot at demonstrators in Bil’in by the army and showcasing them in his home.

An indictment was filed in a West Bank military court yesterday for incitement, stone throwing and arms possession charges against Bil’in Popular Committee coordinator, Abdallah Abu Rahmah. On receiving the indictment Adv. Gaby Lasky, Abu Rahmah’s lawyer said that “the army shoots at unarmed demonstrators, and when they try to show the world the violence used against them by collecting presenting the remnants – they are persecuted and prosecuted. What’s next? Charging protesters money for the bullets shot at them?”

Here is a photo of the “arms” in question:

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Spent tear gas grenades and projectiles used on the village of Bil’in for which Abu Rahmah was indicted. Photo: Oren Ziv ActiveStills

Source

December 23, 2009 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Subjugation - Torture | 2 Comments

Israel razes gas station, grocery near Nablus

23/12/2009 15:57

Nablus – Ma’an – An Israeli military bulldozer demolished a gas station, a grocery store, and a cargo container in the northern West Bank village of Qusra south of the city of Nablus on Wednesday.

Palestinian sources told Ma’an that more than 20 Israeli military jeeps escorted a bulldozer into the village, which proceeded to demolish the structures one kilometer away from Israeli settlement Magdolin.

The owner of the demolished buildings, 30-year-old Mu’tasim Uda, said he received the latest demolition order from Israeli authorities a year ago. He estimated his loss to be about 120,000 Israeli shekels (31,000 US dollars). He explained that he recently stopped operating the gas station, but all the facility’s equipment was still there when the demolition crew arrived.

Uda said Israeli forces used to warn him that stones were pelted at Israeli vehicles by Palestinian youths who used to hide in the gas station area.

Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian official charged with monitoring settlement activities in the northern West Bank, condemned the demolition and appealed to the international community to intervene and stop Israeli policies aimed at displacing the Palestinians from their own lands.

December 23, 2009 Posted by | Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Illegal Occupation, Subjugation - Torture | 1 Comment

   

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