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The Commons
Photo 1

Courtesy photo/Marlboro Films, LLC

Chip piles at Burgess Biopower in Berlin, N.H.

The Arts

Balking at biomass

In 'Burned,' local filmmakers provide an eye-opening and riveting look at how a supposedly carbon-neutral energy source decimates woodlands and forests in the United States

Burned: Are Trees the New Coal? will show at 118 Elliot in Brattleboro on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. Admission is by donation. Attending the screening: Mary S. Booth, Ph.D., director of Partnership for Policy Integrity, one of the activists featured in the film. Information: 802-257-0743.

Originally published in The Commons issue #424 (Wednesday, September 6, 2017). This story appeared on page B1.

BRATTLEBORO—In 2008, Alan Dater and Lisa Merton released their award-winning film Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, which tells the story of the Kenyan activist who started the Green Belt Movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

Implied in the prize committee’s honoring of Maathai is the acknowledgement that environmental issues can have far-reaching effects for societies and the planet.

Merton says that experience showed her and Dater that environmental rights, economic justice, human rights, and democracy are all linked.

“Nothing goes on in isolation,” she says. “Wars are fought over resources.”

Now, after two years of shooting and editing, Dater and Merton have just finished a new film, Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?, to be shown at 118 Elliot on Saturday, Sept. 9.

The film, a production of Marlboro Films LLC (a new corporate identity of Marlboro Productions), will head to film festivals throughout the country.

Burned takes another look at our endangered biome. There is no single hero in this film. But there are voices, and there is sorely needed information.

It could not be more timely. “Climate change is at the heart of this film,” says Merton.

* * *

Eye-opening and riveting, Burned amounts to a crash course in an urgent issue: how cutting our trees as an energy source (one that is supposedly carbon neutral) decimates woodlands and forests in the United States.

Other factors? Government subsidies, corporate culture, and the demise of the paper industry, which puts financial pressure on the logging industry.

Known as “biomass” in energy-speak, burning trees has been promoted as a renewable, sustainable source of energy. This concept is now seen to be dangerously misguided.

“Yes, trees grow back,” says Mary Booth, Ph.D., director of the Partnership For Policy Integrity, an energy-policy advocacy group, “but we don’t have the 20, 30, 50 years it takes.”

Wood chips and pellets manufactured by large corporations are burned in massive quantities. (According to the Partnership for Policy Integrity, a 50-megawatt plant burns around 2,550 pounds of green wood per minute.) These corporations are buying coal-burning facilities and converting them to biomass.

Financially, retrofitting these plants constitutes a win-win for these companies. First, conversion is inexpensive. And because biomass is being sold as carbon neutral, these corporations are also receiving large subsidies from the governments of the countries that host them on the pretext that these plants are actually good for the environment.

Furthermore, Burned documents how forests are being clear-cut for chipping and pellet production, a far cry from industry promises that the leftovers from logging operations would be used for biomass fuel.

And while plenty of bad players are out for the big money to be made, a lot of well-meaning officials and townspeople also thought biomass would provide a way out of the depressed economics of the coal and pulp industries.

They have learned they were, basically, burned.

* * *

Surprisingly, Europe plays a significant role in the destruction of forests in the United States.

The film opens with a languid ride through southeastern riverbank forests, called “bottomlands.” Emphasizing that these forests are essential to a healthy ecosystem, our guide, Jeff Turner of the Blackwater Nottoway Riverkeeper Program, clearly knows and loves this natural habitat.

But he has a warning: The south is fast losing these woodlands to the biomass industry. And much of it is being shipped to Great Britain.

Danna Smith, executive director of Dogwood Alliance, an environmental advocacy organization, laments current practices: “These are the last remnants of natural ecosystems across the south — they provide clean water, flood control, and wildlife habitat.”

The United Kingdom and countries of the European Union, in a climate-change accord several years ago, pledged to meet 20 percent of their respective energy needs with renewables by 2020.

Many countries are turning to biomass to make their quota, and much of their fuel comes from the southeastern United States — “ground zero of the biomass industry,” according to Turner.

Though the pellet manufacturers, wood-chipping plants, and wood-burning electrical generators might bring jobs, the costs often outweigh the gift.

There are unintended consequences, with smokestacks spewing more smoke than coal did, according to industry watchdogs.

In too many instances, what comes out of the chimney of wood-chipping plants is a toxic mix, as in a recent case where railroad ties were chipped and burned, sending creosote, a known carcinogen, into the air.

In addition, because of deals made between energy-producing corporations and town governments, electricity is often more expensive than it was before the biomass plant arrived.

* * *

In an interview last week, Merton, who co-directed and co-produced Burned, spoke of her upbringing in South Africa, planting trees with her father, an immigrant from Germany who “wanted to recreate the Black Forest.” The family moved to Vermont when Merton was 4 years old.

Dater, who grew up on a farm in Massachusetts, is the camera operator for all their films. The footage he has amassed for Burned is impressive.

Importantly, to show the extent of woodland destruction, and contrast it with intact forestland, Dater invested in a drone.

“I could get a bird’s-eye view whenever I wanted it,” he said. “It was so useful!”

Adding to the misrepresentation of burning wood as renewable and sustainable, the film documents the “faulty accounting” discovered by folks at Princeton University: the carbon cost of cutting and chipping and transporting the wood was not and is not being figured into the calculations. If the whole carbon-neutral concept has gotten past you or seems confusing, this film does a really good job of making it clear.

* * *

This environmental degradation and destruction is being perpetrated (unlike oil or coal or fracking) on our doorstep.

Berlin, N.H. hosts the largest wood-burning electricity generating plant in the country. Not too long ago, Greenfield, Mass. was the site of protests over a proposed biomass plant, a fight that citizens eventually won.

Right now, a debate is raging in Massachusetts over whether biomass plants should receive state subsidies. Maine currently has the largest number of biomass energy plants in the country. Burlington is the site of a large biomass plant.

The filmmakers have assembled a wide range of voices: environmentalists, foresters, energy-industry people, and the ordinary citizens who live in towns where the pellet mills and energy-producing plants are situated.

Marlboro Films went on the road, taking their crew to hot spots here and in Europe.

“We travel light,” Dater commented wryly, noting that their crew consists of him, Merton, and Associate Producer Chris Hardee. Ty Gibbons, a musician and composer from Marlboro, wrote the fine score for Burned.

Dater and Merton must be commended for coming up with another hard-hitting, clear-eyed documentary that makes its case without taking the blunt-instrument approach of a Michael Moore.

The film’s message is brought home through marvelous shooting of the natural environment, through interviews with activists and key industry figures, fly-on-the-wall filming of hearings and legal proceedings, and with graphics, animation, and captioning that underscores salient points.

As with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, its power comes from the straight-on presentation of facts, given resonance by the words of thoughtful and impassioned activists.

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