Biomass and Biofuels Impacts on Birds

Cornfield by Mike Parr
Photo: Mike Parr



Biomass refers to living and recently living biological material that can be used as fuel. Most commonly, biomass refers to plant matter grown for use as biofuel (such as corn for ethanol), but also includes plant or animal matter used for production of fibers, chemicals, or heat.

Biomass power (excluding ethanol) is close to a carbon-neutral electric power generation option — biomass absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its growth and then emits an equal amount of carbon dioxide when it is processed to generate electricity. Thus, biomass fuels simply "recycle" atmospheric carbon without adding to global warming impacts.

Biomass in the U.S.


Because biomass power is produced from plant sources, it can potentially be produced almost anywhere in the United States.


Impacts on Birds


The biggest environmental problems with biomass, particularly corn ethanol, is the large amount of land required to harvest energy which otherwise could be used for other purposes or left as undeveloped land.

Similarly, converting land for bioenergy production also results in the loss of high value bird habitats such as wetlands, wet meadows, extensively managed semi-natural grassland and scrub. A good example can be found in the ongoing debate of the reauthorization of the Farm Bill, which includes the proposed conversion of land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) into corn ethanol production. Since its inception in 1986, CRP has converted millions of acres of cropland to grass cover across the prairies, and to grass or forest cover in the Southeast. CRP removes eroding cropland from cultivation and protects it with perennial vegetation for 10-15 year contracts. Bird populations have been shown to utilize CRP, including the American Tree Sparrow, Northern Bobwhite, Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Eastern and Western Meadowlarks - with some studies reporting increases in reproductive rates and population gains attributable to CRP.

Another problem is that crops grown for biofuels are the most land and water-intensive of the "renewable" energy sources. In 2005, about 12% of the nation’s corn crop (covering 11 million acres of farmland) was used to produce four billion gallons of ethanol, which equates to about 2% of annual U.S. gasoline consumption. For biofuels to make a much larger contribution to the energy economy, the industry will have to accelerate the development of new feed stocks, agricultural practices, and technologies that are more land and water efficient.

Corn-derived ethanol, in particular, is not as environmentally friendly as its advocates would like us to believe. Ethanol produces less carbon monoxide than gasoline, but it produces just as much nitrous oxides. In addition, ethanol adds aldehydes and alcohol to the atmosphere, all of which are carcinogenic. When all air pollutants associated with the entire ethanol system is measured, ethanol production is found to contribute to major air pollution problems.




Biomass is a renewable energy resource and can have positive environmental impacts by reducing emissions and pollutants. However, factory farming of biomass crops can reduce biodiversity and negatively impact bird habitat. For example, tracts of un-tilled native prairie are tremendously important to grassland birds; they support many species that rarely if ever use cropland or even CRP fields, such as Burrowing Owl, Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow, and Chestnut-collared Longspur. Co-firing cellulosic biomass with coal to make electricity is more effective for reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere than using it to make ethanol.

The current administration and many in Congress are pushing for a five-fold increase in biofuels production. Biomass sourcing, therefore, should be directed toward agricultural lands and forest plantations already used or cleared for planting, and avoid our imperiled wetlands, native forests, grasslands, and habitat for threatened and endangered species.