Promoting forest biomass


Jodi Peterson’s succinct report - “Burning questions about biomass” -- in High Country News' November 8th edition -- summarizes the many issues which surround efforts to develop biomass energy production in the West and elsewhere. Once viewed as a panacea for the region’s energy needs, a way to reduce carbon emissions and a solution for western wildfire problems, sober realities have gradually come to the fore including:

  • Supply: To be economical a reliable supply of biomass fuel is needed, But supplies have proven difficult to sustain. Plants have been scrapped or have stopped generating electricity as a result. At current prices, biomass must originate within 50 miles of the generating plant.

  • Pollution: Biomass energy generation produces air pollution including particulates, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide. With inland Western valleys subject to regular air inversions, dealing with biomass pollution has proven prohibitively costly. Local governments regularly ignore or downplay the pollution and grant air pollution waivers. But residents have challenged proposed biomass developments which violate air quality standards.

  • Funding: Not just biomass plant development but also ongoing biomass energy production requires continuous government subsidies. In the West, promoters of forest biomass as a fuel source have argued that subsidies are justified by the reduction in the risk of catastrophic fire damage which results from biomass logging. But environmentalists have challenged those claims. In an era of massive government deficits, it is unlikely that ongoing subsidies for biomass energy production will be forthcoming.

Under these conditions smart money is moving away from biomass and toward energy investments which are more clearly sustainable. But that does not mean that the true believers have thrown in the towel. Indeed, local biomass promotion groups which have yet to attract capital investment - like Northern California’s Siskiyou Biomass Utilization Group – continues to seek grants and to engage in biomass promotion.

Why are rural Western politicians, fire safe councils and others continuing to push for biomass development in the face of mounting environmental, economic and budget concerns about the impact of biomass development? I think the answer lies in the recent history of Western public forest management.

Once the dominant activity on the West’s public forests, logging has been dramatically reduced in recent decades as a result of concerted and sustained grassroots challenges. The Forest Service has been forced to take this management approach in order to pass legal muster with the federal courts. Beginning with the Clinton Administration’s Northwest Forest Plan, activists has succeeded in reducing national forest logging to rates more compatible with maintaining water quality, wildlife and biodiversity.

But reduction of public forest logging created anger and resentment among rural Western elites. Because cutting more public timber was linked to federal payments to county governments, officials of those governments had become advocates for more and more national forest logging. These elites were at first incredulous and later deeply angry that upstart grassroots environmentalists could succeed in stopping the clearcutting and stream destruction and thereby dramatically reducing the flow of payments to county coffers.

Coverage of the deep anger and resentment felt by these elites eventually faded from the media; it had become too old hat. But that did not mean the anger and resentment went away. If anything those feelings deepened as the Bush Administration failed to return logging to dominance on Western forests.

When a new energy crisis and concerns about climate change spurred a new interest in alternative energy, these frustrated local elites latched onto biomass as their best opportunity to return logging to dominance on western national forests. Dominated by retired loggers, local “fire safe” groups quickly jumped onto the bandwagon.

Western biomass promoters like to point out that our national forests are annually growing much more biomass than is being removed through logging. Sooner or later, they say, this woody biomass is going to burn up. That will produce carbon emissions and air pollution. And so, they argue, it would be better to remove the excess biomass and thereby reduce catastrophic wildfire while producing energy.

The argument appears rational on its face but weak upon closer examination. For one thing, biomass promoters fail to take account of the process of decay which transforms woody biomass into forest soil. That process not only reduces the net annual growth in forest biomass, it also is necessary to maintain forest health and productivity. Over time removing too much biomass from a forest means trees and other plants will grow more slowly. Less forest vigor means less healthy forests.

Furthermore, it is necessary to increase the amount of woody biomass per acre in order to return public forests to mature and old growth conditions. Any forester worth her salt can tell you that an acre of older forest contains much more woody biomass as compared to an acre of younger forest.

Western forests evolved with fire and must burn for western forest ecosystems to function properly. The amount of natural biomass consumption through fire needed to sustain western forest ecosystems is ignored by forest biomass promoters.

Claims about the efficacy of removing forest biomass as a means to reduce wildfire risk are also questionable. Forest thinning projects, which claim to reduce fire risk actually more often increase the risk – at least in the mid and long term. That is because economic realities typically make it necessary to reduce forest canopy to the point where sunlight and reduced competition for water leads to an explosion of new tree and brush growth after thinning. Within five to eight years, fire risk is greater in thinned forest stands than it was before thinning. The risk continues to increase for another 20 to 30 years. Subsequent action to remove the explosion of small trees and brush that follow biomass thinning is uneconomical and rarely takes place.

California fuel break - Opening the canopy too  much encourages the growth of small trees and brush. Photo by author.

When all economic and ecological factors are considered, energy production from forest biomass looks like a losing proposition not only for local economies but for taxpayers and the forests themselves. But don’t expect that to deter Western rural elites from promoting forest biomass utilization for energy production. These folks have been taught to always be on the lookout for the next taxpayer subsidy opportunity. And they have a social motivation for promoting biomass which is powerfully rooted in deep anger and resentment. Given the state of federal and state budgets as well as the legal framework that governs public forest management, however, it is likely these elites will continue to be frustrated and will only become angrier in the future.

I continue to hope for the emergence of a new style of Western rural politician – politicians who are not as angrily anti-environmental and who are not always looking for the next taxpayer subsidy. A few politicians of this style are emerging in the rural West; but they remain vastly outnumbered by those of the more traditional persuasion.

Schemes and scams for public forest biomass production will continue as a feature of the western scene for years to come. Whether those schemes and scams will succeed, however, looks increasingly unlikely. Rural Western politicians might find more success were they to promote energy technologies which are truly clean and green. But that would require politicians who look forward rather than looking back. 

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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