With more than a dozen biomass-fueled cogeneration plants from the pulp, paper and wood-products industries alone – including in Springdale – Washington state has become a world leader in generating renewable energy. But that pioneering history could end if action is not taken soon.
The problem is indecision in the other Washington, our nation’s capital. Six years ago federal officials reversed a long-standing policy of rating biomass (plant material used for energy) as carbon neutral. There were good – even common sense – reasons for that carbon-neutral designation. As they grow, trees draw carbon from the air and soil. At the end of their life cycle, they return carbon to the air and soil to be absorbed by the growing trees that replace them. Dust to dust becomes carbon to carbon and back again.
This is what is called the carbon cycle, and, with forest acreage growing in the United States and managed forests producing more wood material per acre over the years, the cycle has had a powerful impact on total carbon in the atmosphere. Twice as much wood is grown annually throughout America as is harvested. Carbon absorption in our nation’s forests reduces the atmospheric load of the nation’s annual carbon emissions by 13 percent.
Jobs have been grown, too. Use and sale of biomass helps keep our forest-dependent industries economically vibrant. The total payroll of the state’s forestry and logging, wood products, and pulp and paper industries tops 30,000, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). Washington state’s combined payroll in these industries exceeds $2 billion.
The turmoil in federal policy is all the more unsettling, because, as facilities in nearly every part of the Northwest have been demonstrating for decades, renewable bioenergy from forests is not just a viable but an essential part of the U.S. and global energy solution. Unlike solar and wind, biomass-based energy produces constant electricity. Residuals from pulp, paper, packaging, tissue and wood-products manufacturers account for about 62 percent of U.S. manufacturer-generated biomass energy.
The alternative to this kind of energy generation is depositing them in landfill or incineration without energy recovery. By decomposing there, they will emit methane, which has a 25 times greater warming impact than the carbon dioxide from burning. And removing biomass through forestry activities that encourage tree growth and maintain forest health helps capture more carbon, while preventing loss due to insects, disease and fire.
The issue of biomass became hotter this year after 100 forest scientists sent the EPA administrator a letter about the science of biomass. Citing the most comprehensive review of U.S. scientific literature on the subject ever conducted, they told the administrator, “The carbon benefits of sustainable forest biomass energy are well established.” They suggested that sale of biomass to generators is part of the dynamic of expanding forest acreage, adding,“[r]esearch demonstrates that demand for paper and wood products helps keep land in forest and incentivizes investments in new and more productive forests, all of which have significant carbon benefits.”
It is possible that EPA officials have failed to grasp this last point, that burning biomass helps to expand forests. Turning waste to dollars makes forest management more profitable. It ensures that companies stay viable and preserves jobs. Enhanced profitability gives forest owners both the resources and the incentive to maximize the amount of wood that each forest acre produces. It encourages them to expand the size of the forests they manage. That greater profitability is a major reason that forest acreage in the nation has expanded in recent decades, reversing decades of decline.
In their letter to EPA, the 100 scientists pointed out one other conclusion from the studies they surveyed: “Measuring the net accumulation from forest biomass energy over a 100-year time frame, as is done for fossil fuels, more accurately captures and more appropriately demonstrates the cumulative carbon benefits of biomass energy compared to fossil fuels.”
Of course, forest carbon stocks should be measured on a broad geographic scale, too – the region or the nation. Nationwide policy should be subject to at least regional and more appropriately national metrics of success.
Congress is considering whether to require EPA to restore biomass’s carbon neutral rating so long as the ability of U.S. forests to absorb carbon dioxide is stable or expanding. Its action would contribute greatly to controlling climate change and protecting the jobs of those who depend on Washington’s forestry-dependent industries.
Dean Rudolf is vice chairman and Western Region director of the Pulp & Paperworkers’ Resource Council.