Missing the forest for the trees

The Environmental Protection Agency has biomass operators — and Oregon members of Congress — steaming over the possibility that biomass plants might be regulated as though they were coal-fired power plants. So far, the EPA is merely planning to gather more information before deciding on the industry's future. But if the decision goes the wrong way, it would be bad for Oregon's economy and for rational forest management.

Biomass is woody material — small trees and brush cut to reduce fire danger, as well as debris from demolished buildings, fences and other structures. Burning this waste wood generates a small amount of power, but enough to earn some money and help pay for forest thinning projects.

The world is focused on greenhouse gases as the prime culprit in global climate change. Reducing carbon emissions is considered the most effective way to slow and, ultimately, stop global warming.

Biomass presents an interesting dilemma for carbon-reduction advocates.

Growing forests act as carbon "sinks" — absorbing carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. When trees die, or when small trees and brush are cut to reduce fire danger, the woody debris contains stored carbon. Leaving wood to rot on the forest floor releases that carbon back into the atmosphere — part of the natural carbon cycle.

Burning the waste instead reduces the risk it will contribute fuel to a forest fire. Burning also releases less carbon than the decay process. The emissions, however, are higher than those for coal plants.

Coal-fired power plants, however, burn massive quantities of fossilized carbon. Coal is carbon that has been sequestered from the carbon cycle for millennia, until it is dug up by humans for fuel.

Regardless of the danger posed by biomass emissions, the industry contributes less than 1 percent of the nation's electricity production. Coal is a major energy source.

The EPA's dilemma is whether biomass plants should continue to be classified as "carbon-neutral" for the purpose of reducing greenhouse emissions.

Cutting down otherwise marketable timber to burn for electricity would not be carbon-neutral, and ought to be discouraged. But no one is suggesting that be done.

Reducing wildfire danger by thinning small trees and cutting brush is something nearly everyone agrees ought to be done. Wildfires pour far more carbon and pollutants into the atmosphere than biomass operations.

Sustaining human civilization on a planet with finite resources is an exercise in balancing what we take against what we preserve and put back.

Sustainable timber harvests and generating power by burning wood waste are examples of the kind of balance we ought to be looking for.

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