Home > Uncategorized > Disaster Capitalism – The Wildfire Edition

Disaster Capitalism – The Wildfire Edition

Wildfires become pretext for logging, as media downplays role of climate change

Trump EPA over-rides EPA Science Board and quietly promotes logging

Joint climate catastrophe and forestry collapse


Over the same period [1990 – 2016], total C sequestration in the LULUCF sector decreased by 75.4 MMT CO2 (9.1 percent decrease in total C sequestration), and emissions from the LULUCF sector increased by 27.4 MMT CO2 Eq. (258 percent). …

Forest fires were the largest source of CH4 emissions from LULUCF in 2016, totaling 18.5 MMT CO2 Eq.   ~~~ EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory

For the second summer in a row, I’ve been out west as record breaking wildfires and unhealthy smoke and dangerous fine particulate air pollution proliferate. Choking smoke hit the Puget Sound region last week.

The news coverage out here is saturated with not only dramatic video of the conflagrations, and the typical “hero firefighters” and human interest stories, but almost every news story I hear repeats two major flaws:

1) the role of climate change is ignored, downplayed, and – at times – even rejected as a major contributing factor;

2) the fires are blamed on poor forest management (fire suppression, public and environmental group opposition to logging, etc) and the solution is “active management” (a euphemism for logging).

(poor land use policies that allow development in high risk locations is also ignored, but that is beyond the scope of this post. And, of course, attribution to capitalism as a system is not remotely on the media radar or policy agenda.)

I write this today as the California legislature approves bill criticized as a PG&E bailout for wildfire costs:

Sacramento — After months of furious lobbying, a bill that would help Pacific Gas and Electric Co. deal with the costs of last year’s devastating wildfires — in part by passing some of those costs on to the utility’s customers — won approval from California legislators late Friday.

The bill was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown an hour before the Legislature’s midnight deadline. He is considered likely to sign it, despite bitter complaints from consumer advocates that it represents a bailout of PG&E

So, we can add billion dollar corporate bailouts to the list of really bad and unpopular public policies rammed through in the wake of disasters, exactly as Naomi Klein explained in her book “The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”:

using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy

Klein shows many examples of how radical corporate designed policy proposals – far too politically unpopular to to be enacted during normal conditions – are taken off the shelf and rammed through in the wake of various “shocks” (Wiki):

[Klein’s book] centers on the exploitation of national crises to push through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance.

But, in addition to utility bailouts, other really bad environmental policies are being advanced under the “shock” and cover of wildfire.

Specifically, another damaging example is logging as a fire suppression tool. Follow.

Disgraced former Trump EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt got close media scrutiny – including unprecedented and detailed inventories of many EPA rollbacks see: 76 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump

That media exposure, lawsuits and the courts already have derailed several of his radical pro-corporate polluter deregulatory initiatives.

But surprisingly, Pruitt managed to keep one at least one major controversial policy rollback under the media radar, at least as far as I know. The Harvard Environmental Law School’s “rollback tracker” missed it and so did Columbia Law School’s “environmental tracker” and so did the NY Times.

I refer specifically to Pruitt’s April 23, 2018 policy statement: EPA’s Treatment of Biogenic Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Stationary Sources that Use Forest Biomass for Energy Production:

On April 23, 2018, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a statement of policy making clear that in future regulatory actions biomass from managed forests will be treated as carbon neutral when used for energy production at stationary sources.

That policy, now being taken off the shelf, states (read the whole thing):

The use of biomass from managed forests can provide numerous environmental, energy and economic benefits. Specifically, forest biomass use for energy can bolster domestic energy production, provide jobs to rural communities, and promote environmental stewardship by improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and helping to ensure our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

According to scientific studies, Pruitt’s new forest biomass policy and “carbon neutral” finding reflect a major “accounting error” and will “severely undermine greenhouse gas reduction goals“:

This accounting erroneously treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral, regardless of the source of the biomass, which may cause large differences in net emissions. For example, the clearing of long-established forests to burn wood or to grow energy crops is counted as a 100% reduction in energy emissions, despite its causing large releases of carbon.

Pruitt’s policy represents a serious risk to our forests as well as climate – check out the global implications: (Science, Vol. 326. Oct. 2009)

Several recent studies estimate that this error, applied globally, would create strong incentives to clear land as carbon caps tighten. One study (2) estimated that a global CO target of 450 ppm under this accounting would cause bioenergy crops to expand to displace virtually all the world’s natural forests and savannahs by 2065, releasing up to 37 gigatons (Gt) CO2 per year (comparable to total human CO2 emissions today).

Another study predicts that, based solely on economic considerations, bioenergy could displace 50% of the world’s net forest cover and release an additional 9 Gt CO2 per year to achieve a 50% “cut” in green- house gases by 2050 (3). The reason: when bioenergy from any biomass is counted as carbon neutral, economics favor large-scale land conversion for bioenergy regardless of the actual net emissions (4).

Pruitt’s radical policy will reduce the ability of our forests to store (sequester) carbon, increase greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate exactly the kind of unhealthy fine particulate air pollution we are experiencing from major fires.

Pruitt explicitly rejected and over-rode the findings and recommendations of EPA’s own Science Advisory Board (SAB) who issued a 2012 Report to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that, among many other serious flaws with using forests as a fuel source, and the “carbon neutral” basis, found:

Carbon neutrality cannot be assumed for all biomass energy a priori. There are circumstances in which biomass is grown, harvested and combusted in a carbon neutral fashion but carbon neutrality is not an appropriate a priori assumption; it is a conclusion that should be reached only after considering a particular feedstock’s production and consumption cycle. (@p.3) …

The notion that biomass is carbon neutral arises from the fact that the carbon released as CO2 upon combustion was previously removed from the atmosphere as CO2 during plant growth. While it is true that emissions from burning a single tree will equal the same amount of carbon sequestered by that tree at a micro level, at a macro level, net emissions will depend upon rates of harvest vis-a-vis rates of sequestration over time. Thus, the physical flow of carbon in the biomass combusted for bioenergy represents a closed loop that passes through a stationary source. Under an accounting framework where life cycle emissions associated with the production and use of biomass are attributed to a stationary source, assuming carbon neutrality of biomass implies that the net sum of carbon emissions from all sources and sinks is zero, including all supply chain and market-mediated effects. Carbon neutrality cannot be assumed for all biomass energy a priori (Rabl et al. 2007; Johnson 2009; Searchinger et al. 2009). There are circumstances in which biomass is grown, harvested and combusted in a carbon neutral fashion but carbon neutrality is not an appropriate a priori assumption; it is a conclusion that should be reached only after considering a particular feedstock production and consumption cycle. There is considerable heterogeneity in feedstock types, sources, production methods and leakage effects; thus net biogenic carbon emissions will vary considerably.

Given that some biomass combustion could have positive net emissions, a categorical exclusion would remove any responsibility on the stationary source for CO2 emissions from its use of biogenic material from the entire system (i.e., the global economy) and provide no incentive for the development and use of best management practices. Conversely, a categorical inclusion would provide no incentive for using biogenic sources that compare favorably to fossil energy in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. (@ p. 17)

Pruitt’s new policy on the use of forest biomass as a domestic energy source and his arbitrary “accounting error” of “carbon neutrality” are huge threat to forests and all the wildlife, water quality, and recreational benefits they provide.

Yet, it has gotten virtually no media attention and little pushback from the public and environmental groups that I am aware of (though I’m frequently off the grid).

That policy paves the way for the current “disasters” of wildfire risk to be used to promote “salvage logging” and “active management” as fire suppression strategies.

Aside from the debate raging out west, my NJ friends have already seen this happen, by the recent passage of legislation to expand the use of so called “prescribed burns”. As NJ Spotlight reported:


After years of debate, lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would offer more opportunity to conduct prescribed burns in New Jersey woodlands.

The bill is viewed as a way to reduce wildfires in the state while promoting the ecological health of forests, particularly those in the Pinelands. …

“Controlled burns are a critical tool in preventing the type of massive wildfires that have the ability to devastate forest and communities,’’ said Sen. James Beach, a Republican from Burlington County and a sponsor of the bill.

Note how Senator Beach cites prevention of “massive wildfires” as a primary justification for the legislation.

That is a flat out lie, printed uncritically by NJ Spotlight and echoed by NJ “conservationists”:

“It absolutely helps reduce the chance of wildfire,’’ agreed Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, which has backed the legislation.

But news coverage of Gov. Murphy’s signature of the bill into law exposed these lies.

Specifically, existing law – prior to the new law – provided ample legal authority to conduct “prescribed burns” to reduce fuels and wildfire hazards and thus prevent wildfires. Here’s a quote from the Chief of NJ’s Forest Fire Service that exposes the lie: (Press of Atlantic City (8/29/18))

New law means expanded use of prescribed burns

… “We will have a significant number of new opportunities to use fire as a tool, not only to protect areas but to manage habitat,” said New Jersey Forest Fire Service Chief Greg McLaughlin, whose division is part of the DEP. “The law (previously) had restricted us specifically to use it only to reduce fuels and hazards.”

There is huge and growing momentum to expand logging of our forests under sham wildfire prevention, habitat improvement, and “salvage logging” pretexts.

This can only accelerate deforestation and climate catastrophe.

Shockingly, corrupt “conservationists” are either active collaborators or silent enablers of these policies. And I mean you, NJ Audubon, NJ Conservation Foundation, and Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Buried in the NJ Spotlight story is the real reason for this disgrace – economic self interest:

The legislation establishes a process for certifying individuals to conduct prescribed burns  … The bill also reduces liability for those who conduct prescribed burns.

Conservation groups can now avoid the cost of liability coverage and benefit from grants and consulting contracts as certified foresters.That’s why this bill was passed – Tittel gets it half right:

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, opposed the bill, saying it should have been limited to the Pinelands. “This bill is not about making our forests healthier, but about providing insurance for those people who want to burn their lands,’’ he said.

Follow the money.

[End note and warning: I got blindsided on the Pruitt biofuels policy in reading the fine print of EPA recent proposal to repeal and replace the Obama clean power plan. The “carbon neutral” determination is included in that rule proposal, which will allow states to abuse forests and claim climate credits.

Chasing the scientific basis for the Pruitt policy led me to the Pruitt April 18 policy statement and the 2012 SAB Report to EPA.

Warning: keep this in ind as NJ implements the new RGGI program – carbon sequestration is legislatively included in the RGGI program. This will allow groups like NJ Audbon to get funded from RGGI funds for their logging projects, e.g. Sparta Mt., et al.]

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