Study shouldn't snuff biomass

If the goal of increasing biomass production from forests is only to reduce net carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, a new study by Oregon State University researchers suggests it's not a good idea. But that's not the only reason why Gov. John Kitzhaber and members of Oregon's congressional delegation from both parties support biomass ventures. And it's not a reason to scrap the idea.

The four-year study, by a forestry professor and a graduate student researcher, concluded that removing woody debris from forests and burning it to produce electricity or converting it into biofuels will increase carbon dioxide emissions from forests by 14 percent. Previously, biomass was considered carbon-neutral because forests regrow, and living trees absorb carbon dioxide. The study concluded the current practice of burning logging slash and other debris or leaving it to rot emits less carbon into the atmosphere.

But carbon reduction is not the only goal of removing biomass from forests. In fact, it may be the least important factor from a public policy standpoint.

The OSU researchers were not addressing a public policy question. They were focusing on a narrow scientific question involving carbon emissions and climate change.

Supporters of biomass production see an alternative energy source that does not rely on fossil fuels. They also see the potential for an industry that creates jobs, both in the woods and in power plants.

The truth is, there is no energy source that does not have harmful environmental effects to some degree. Hydroelectric dams emit no carbon, but they harm native fish runs. Nuclear power plants produce no emissions either, but disposing of spent radioactive fuel has tremendous environmental consequences.

Fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — carry their own environmental price tag.

Biomass offers a way to improve the health of forests in the long term, reducing the threat of wildfires, which emit plenty of carbon while they are burning. The traditional practice of burning slash in place also generates carbon-laden smoke.

Removing biomass means employing people to do it. Turning that woody material into biofuels — wood pellets for stoves, for instance — or burning it cleanly in energy generating plants rather than in piles on the ground creates jobs as well. The electricity produced can be used in place of power generated by burning nonrenewable coal or natural gas.

OSU researcher Tara Hudiburg acknowledged the limitations of the study in an interview with The Oregonian:

"I don't know much about producing jobs, habitat restoration or wildlife restoration — I know a lot about carbon," she said. "If your goal is reduce carbon emissions, then it will not help. But if you have other goals, then yes, maybe."

Yes, exactly.

Share This Story