Study: Thinning Forests for Bioenergy Can Worsen Climate

 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"529","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"480","style":"width: 333px; height: 344px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"465"}}]]A new study out of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon concludes that selectively logging or “thinning” forests for bioenergy can increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change.

The study, “Thinning Combined With Biomass Energy Production May Increase, Rather Than Reduce, Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” by D.A. DellaSala and M. Koopman, challenges bioenergy and timber industry assertions that logging forests will aid in the fight against climate change.

DellaSala and Koopman also refute assumptions that wildfires are bigger or more severe than in the past, citing multiple studies showing that the occurrence of wildfire has actually “changed little from historical (early European settlement) times.”

The Western Governor’s Association has stated that 10.6 million acres of western forests are available for “hazardous fuel reduction.” Yet, instead of instead of the build up of “fuel” (aka small trees and understory plants) being the main driver of large wildfire, the study authors blame climate, namely drought and high temperatures, explaining that, “during severe weather events, even thinned sites will burn.”

Instead of preventing large wildfires, the study argues that thinning can increase the chance of severe fire by opening the forest canopy which can dry out the forest, leaving flammable slash piles on the ground, and allowing winds to penetrate the previously sheltered stands, potentially spreading wildfire. Post-fire “salvage” logging is also thought to increase the risk of a re-burn.  

Carbon emissions from wildfire have long been an argument to log forests, in an effort to harness energy from trees that may burn at some point anyway. Yet findings show that after a fire the majority of the carbon remains in dead trees, with severe fires that kill most trees in the area emitting 5-30% of stored carbon. Severe fires account for 12-14% of the area burned in large fires. 

Even in the cases where thinning would be effective at stopping wildfire--typically small fires of limited threat to public safety--the study cites computer simulations estimating a 5-8% chance of a thinned parcel experiencing fire within the first twenty years, when fuels are lowest. The chance of encountering severe fire is 2%.

DellaSala and Koopman also urge an accurate carbon accounting of forest bioenergy, cautioning that the amount of carbon dioxide released from burning woody biomass is “often comparable to coal and much larger than that of oil and natural gas due to inefficiencies in burning wood for fuel compared to more energy- dense fossil fuels.”

In the rare cases in which a thinned forest is allowed to grow back without repeated logging, the several decades over which forests could reabsorb carbon “conflicts with current policy imperatives requiring drastic cuts in emissions over the near term.”

The study warns about “large-scale clearing of forests” at a time when natural forests are needed to buffer the planet against runaway climate change.  

"Woody biomass," said DellaSalla in a December 17 phone interview, "almost never pencils out as an efficient renewable energy source."  

If You Build It, They Will Cut

 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"502","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"360","style":"width: 333px; height: 250px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Logging for biomass energy in White River National Forest, Colorado","width":"480"}}]]Generating biomass energy doesn’t result in more logging, according to the biomass industry, whose spokespersons claim facilities only make use of “waste” wood already coming from existing logging operations.

Ron Kotrba, Senior Editor for Pellet Mill Magazine, wrote in the May/June 2015 issue that biomass is the “most unlikely of the forest products to drive the general practice of forestry in the U.S.”

Kotrba believes that the notion of biomass “driving forestry practices in the U.S. is a purposefully deceptive scare tactic used by some in an attempt to influence the perceptions of policy makers and the public.”

Chris Matera, director of Massachusetts Forest Watch, a grassroots forest advocacy group based in Northampton, has long warned that “wood fueled biomass energy will add tremendous pressure, and further degrade already stressed forests.”

“Existing wood-fueled biomass facilities already cut and burn enormous amounts of whole trees for fuel,” said Matera, “and any new facilities will only add more logging pressure.” 

Clearly, opinions differ among the biomass industry and its critics, leaving the question: do biomass energy facilities increase logging?

Federal and state agency personnel, along with members of the biomass industry, have made statements demonstrating that the construction of a bioenergy facility is likely to result in a local increase in logging, including in National Forests, by opening an additional market for the sale of trees that might have otherwise been left in the forest to grow.

Brad Flatten, Stewardship and Timber Sales Specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, was quoted in “Wood Supply Assessment for Commercial-Scale Biomass Power Cogeneration and Biomass Utilization Projects in Central Washington,” saying the establishment of biomass energy facilities in Washington state “may provide a market for small-diameter material typically generated from fuels treatment…and potentially increase the number of treatment acres.”

In other words, controversial “fuel reduction” logging projects, which many scientific studies suggest aren’t effective at reducing the likelihood of a large wildfire, may expand in scale if a biomass energy facility will purchase the trees.

Biomass energy, said Eric Lamfers of the Washington Department of Natural Resources in the “Wood Supply” document, “affords treatment of areas that normally could not be treated without market-based opportunities.” This statement also makes it evident that some Washington forests would be left unlogged without the existence of biomass energy facilities.

Wind River Biomass, a combined heat and power biomass energy facility proposed for Stevenson, Washington, plans to source trees from the nearby Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

A biomass gasification project in North Fork, California that would burn trees to create electricity, heat and biochar would also increase logging, including in the Sierra National Forest, according to a May 6, 2015 article in the Sierra Star.

Jim Branham, executive officer for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, one of the entities behind the North Fork facility, was quoted as saying that biomass projects such as his are “key to increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration and protecting our forests and communities from large, damaging wildfires.” Once again, a biomass energy facility is acting as a driver for more “fuel reduction” logging projects.

While some biomass energy facilities spur logging in anticipation of the natural process of wildfire, other facilities trigger logging after a burn. For example, a new biomass facility in Kauai drove the cutting and burning of 15,000 tons of pine and eucalyptus trees in Kokee that wouldn’t have been logged otherwise, according to March 5, 2015 article in the Washington Times.

An April 4, 2015 article in Timberline reported that Watertown, New York-based wood chipping company, Pala Wood Service Company, “had all but stopped chipping [trees] due to a lack of a customer base for that product.” Yet, according to Pala Wood’s owner, Bruce Strough, the recent opening of ReEnergy Black River, a 60-megawatt biomass power facility in Fort Drum, “represented an opportunity to get back into the market.”

As more biomass energy facilities are built across the U.S., including ones in close proximity to National Forests, only time will tell whether we’ll see a resulting uptick in logging proposals, as biomass opponents warn. But, if statements by those working on the ground to advance bioenergy are accurate, more logging specifically to fuel these facilities is probable.  

Mining the Soil for Biomass Energy

Mining the Soil for Biomass Energy - Thursday, April 16 at 1 pm PT / 4 ET

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"460","attributes":{"alt":"logging in white river national forest colorado","class":"media-image","height":"360","style":"width: 333px; height: 250px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"480"}}]]Jon Rhodes, watershed hydrologist, has more than thirty years of professional experience evaluating the impacts of logging and road building on forest ecosystems and watersheds. Jon runs Planeto Azul Hydrology, which provides affordable watershed expertise for a wide variety of conservation efforts.

Call in on Thursday, April 16 at 1 pm PT / 4 ET to learn about the impacts of "fire fuels reduction" and biomass energy logging on forest soils, a precious resource thousands of years in the making and the foundation of forest ecosystems.

Public Weighs in on Plumas County, CA Biomass Proposal

- by Debra Moore, April 5, 2015, Plumas County News

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"448","attributes":{"alt":"california biomass energy facilities","class":"media-image","height":"480","style":"width: 333px; height: 431px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Graphic: livingassessment.wikispaces.com","width":"371"}}]]The Sierra Institute is poised to receive $2.6 million from the California Energy Commission, but first the public will have a chance to comment on the biomass boiler that would be built near the county’s health and human services building in Quincy.

The commission announced March 10 that it had awarded $2.6 million to the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment after ranking it No. 2 out of the nearly two dozen proposals received.

Jonathan Kusel, the executive director of the institute, said he was thrilled when he heard the news. Likewise, Plumas County Supervisor Lori Simpson, and Dony Sawchuk, the county’s facility’s director, expressed their appreciation that the county would benefit from the award. The construction would provide jobs; the forests would be rendered healthier; and the power and heat generated would be more economical.

A small biomass boiler, the first of its type in the state, would provide heat for the college dorms and power and heat for the health and human services building.

But not everyone supports the project. Graeagle resident Mark Mihevc has repeatedly spoken out at Board of Supervisors’ meetings about his aversion to biomass technology. Mihevc prefers a compost approach to biomass and opposes mechanical thinning of forests to provide fuel to produce energy.

During the Feb. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting, when the supervisors were discussing a similar biomass plant for Eastern Plumas Health Care, Mihevc objected to biomass boilers at all proposed locations, which he described as “massive industrial thinning that will kill the forest.” Mihevc said that fire is nature’s path to forest health.

Study: The Dark Side of Forest Carbon Sequestration

 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"439","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"317","style":"width: 275px; height: 231px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"378"}}]]Science has taught us that humans and trees have a symbiotic relationship: humans and other living creatures exhale carbon dioxide, which trees absorb to produce oxygen, which we then breathe. It’s a perfect circle that maintains life on Earth as we know it. But a recent study out of Rhode Island’s Miskatonic University has identified an unsettling aspect of this natural process.

The study, Rapid Uptake of Carbon Dioxide by Northeastern Spruce-Fir Forests, by Dr. Howard Philips et. al., posits that trees aren’t simply sequestering carbon dioxide voluntarily exhaled by humans, mammals, and other creatures, but are generating a vacuum effect that virtually sucks CO2 from our lungs before we’re done breathing it. Medically speaking, the process accelerates breathing rates, causing shallow breathing, reducing oxygenation of the brain, blood, tissues, and organs. 

Save America's Forests and Wild Lands from Anti-Environmental Congress

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"436","attributes":{"alt":"save america's forests","class":"media-image","height":"189","style":"width: 197px; height: 189px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"197"}}]]The logging, grazing, mining and other extractive industries are mounting an intense attack on our nation's public lands. 
 
The December 2014 lame duck session of Congress saw an ugly brew of anti-conservation initiatives removing legal conservation protection from millions of acres of public lands. But this was just the tip of the oncoming extractive industries iceberg.
 
With Republican capture of the Senate in the 2014 election, the goal of the ultra right wing to privatize public lands may soon become reality. Representative Peter DeFazio’s legislation to virtually privatize and allow clearcutting on one million acres of federal land in Oregon could pass into law in the new Congress and become a model for the rest of our public lands. This anti-conservation juggernaut must be stopped. The landmark environmental and conservation laws that for a half century gave some protection to our public lands are eroding, and will disappear like the glaciers in Glacier National Park or the polar ice caps unless we, the hardcore grassroots, unite and fight back in a coordinated national campaign. 

Soil is Not Renewable

- by Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition
 
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"424","attributes":{"alt":"Private Land Soil Erosion in Oakridge, Oregon","class":"media-image","longdesc":"soil erosion on private land Oakridge, Oregon","style":"width: 333px; height: 250px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;"}}]]Soils are the foundation of terrestrial life. Forest productivity is directly tied to soil conditions. Soil takes thousands of years to develop and is not "renewable"on a human time scale. Soil is an ecosystem in itself that must be healthy in order to provide for healthy forests, grasslands, and aquatic systems. Actions impacting such complex systems are prone to unintended consequences. Given the life-support role soils play, special care and prudence are essential.  
 
The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) prohibits "irreversible damage" to soils as well as "substantial and permanent impairment of productivity of land." Loss of soil (erosion) and displacement clearly cause "irreversible damage" and "permanent impairment of productivity of land." Loss of coarse woody debris causes soil damage that can last a century or more. Soil compaction negatively impacts soil productivity, overland flow, erosion, stream sedimentation, and late season flows. Soil compaction from logging can persist 50 – 80 years. 

Hardwood Trees Chipped for Nova Scotia Biomass

- by Roger Taylor, February 26, 2015, Herald Business

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"407","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 444px; height: 251px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Aaron Beswick/Truro Bureau"}}]]Hardwood trees are being allowed to go up in smoke, and with them a number of rural manufacturing jobs that are hard to replace.

It is easy to reach that conclusion after reading stories about several companies in rural Nova Scotia that have been making products from hardwood.

Just recently, the inability to access enough local hardwood was one of the reasons given by the owners of River’s Bend Wood Products Inc. for shutting down their flooring plant.

The factory in rural Antigonish County once employed 17 workers, but that number has been slowly whittled away. Now the remaining 11 employees will lose their jobs at the mill.

What a 20-year Biomass Battle Tells Us About Environmental Justice Policy

- by Brentin Mock, February 24, 2015, Grist

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"398","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"270","style":"width: 333px; height: 187px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"480"}}]]It’s well-established that the Environmental Protection Agency has been quite flaccid when it comes to enforcing civil rights issues. The online news outlet E&E recently took the time to remind us how bad it is last week, reporting from Flint, Mich., where environmental justice complaints about a biomass energy plant built in a low-income, black community have gone ignored since the early 1990s.

“In that corner of Flint, there is just a lot of polluting stuff that’s either in Genesee Township or the northeast side of Flint, and nothing has ever really been done about that,” Rev. Phil Schmitter told E&E reporter Robin Bravender. “The plant is about a mile from an elementary school and a low-income housing complex.”

Back in 1994, environmental justice activists in Flint asked the EPA to block construction of the biomass plant, arguing that low-income African Americans have already suffered enough from the concentration of pollution and poverty in the northeastern quarter. The EPA noted the request, and it’s on the agency’s list of civil rights complaints, filed July 1, 1994 as one of the few cases accepted for investigation. But here we are, over 20 years later, and the situation hasn’t been resolved. The plant has been up and running since 1995, burning wood to energy to its merry delight.

Now, the EPA’s lack of action on civil rights enforcement deserves scrutiny, even as the agency has taken steps like creating Plan EJ 2014, a detailed proposal for correcting this problem. And certainly there are cumulative impact questions that need to be answered in Flint. But as much as anything, the story of the Flint biomass plant reveals just how complicated these issues can be.

Media Helps Biomass Industry Spread Wildfire Hysteria

-  by Melissa Santos, January 4, 2015, The News Tribune

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"371","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"317","style":"width: 334px; height: 253px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","width":"418"}}]]Ann Stanton credits a state program with saving her home from the worst wildfire in Washington’s history.

Despite her property being in the path of the Carlton Complex fire, which scorched about 256,000 acres in Okanogan and Chelan counties last summer, Stanton’s home and the trees around it survived with minimal damage.

It wasn’t just luck. A year earlier, Stanton and her husband worked with the state Department of Natural Resources to thin the trees on their 20-acre property, reducing the wildfire’s ability to spread.

“It made all the difference in the world for us,” Stanton said last month. “The house was completely spared. If you could ignore the black trunks on some of the ponderosa pines, you could imagine the fire had never happened.”

DNR officials think thinning and restoring more forests on public and private lands throughout the state could help prevent another wildfire season like 2014, which was the most destructive in state history.