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PNW Bioenergy Needs Sensible Policy from Congress

June 27, 2008
Author: Suz-Anne Kinney

The search for an “OPEC of Renewable Energy” has led some to the Pacific Northwest, where abundant forest resources could offer the bioenergy equivalent of a major oil strike. Renewable energy, or what has been touted in this election year as the “green economy,” offers a real opportunity to bring together ideologically diverse and sometimes adversarial proponents of forestry in this region to address locally some of the economic and environmental concerns that are converging in the national arena. The Pacific Northwest forestry community – industry, non-profit organizations and citizens – can energize the weakened economy in rural, resource rich communities, help steer our nation towards energy independence, but these objectives can be accomplished only with the implementation of sensible policy that promotes active, responsible and sustainable management of national forests.

Forestry in the Pacific Northwest can and should play a central role in supplying “green energy” for America. Thinning of over-crowded, stagnant forests for timber and bioenergy purposes will benefit rural economic prosperity by attracting “green collar” jobs and improving the health and sustainability of our forests. In order to realize this benefit, congress must eschew the type of misguided and often obstructive measures evident in this year’s energy bill. The energy bill strictly limits the definition of renewable biomass to expressly exclude certain harvesting from federal lands and favors tree plantations over other forests. The logical extension to this type of legislation is that the wood -based cellulosic ethanol industry will be hampered in areas dominated by federal or natural forests – in other words, the Pacific Northwest. With a single provision in one bill, congress has erected a legislative maze that dead ends at a 20 foot fence around the one resource required by the burgeoning bioenergy industry and creates a congressionally imposed and artificial shortage of an otherwise abundant, renewable resource.

The professed intent of this provision is to protect the ecological diversity and environmental integrity of our nation’s forests, but it does so poorly with no regard to the science of maintaining forest health in an era when our forests abut numerous population centers, nor does it realistically address the issue of climate change – the basis for much of the discussion surrounding renewable energy. Each year, state-sized swaths of forest burn uncontrollably due to protectionist policies that prohibit rational management of our national forests. When a forest burns, it releases massive amounts of unscrubbed particulates and – yes – carbon into the atmosphere. While it is true that fire is a necessary component of a forest’s life cycle and some argue that greenhouse gases released in forest fires would not likely be counted as an “emission” by global standards, it does not obviate the need to minimize and control the spread of forest wildfires: communities are devastated by forest fires every year, private property is placed in great peril and many average, working class families who cannot afford to simply pick up and leave are left with the consequences of policy that favors the illusion of wilderness rather than humanitarian need.

Currently, the bioenergy industry in the Pacific Northwest is making positive strides, but existing resource streams will be unable to support increased demand. The Oregon Renewable Portfolio Standard alone mandates that up to 25 percent of utility energy production is renewable by 2025 – just the first target of 5 percent to be met by 2011 will likely require more fiber than what is currently available in traditional fiber resource streams. The mandate in combination with the existing supply of fiber will likely result in one of two outcomes: 1) the target will not be met by 2011 or 2) fiber costs will increase dramatically due to the increased demand. The probable scenario is that whether we are prepared for it or not, the bioenergy industry will come to the Pacific Northwest. How we prepare for it will determine whether it actually benefits anyone here or whether it will simply make energy less affordable. This is a lesson already too apparent within the pulp and paper industry, which has watched its fiber prices soar in the wake of the housing crisis and subsequently been forced to raise its prices.

A solution to a potential fiber supply shortage is greater utilization of forest resources. Unfortunately, the only federal initiative in place that would help us meet our renewable energy demand for fiber, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA), is ridiculously under-implemented. As a result of this focus away from appropriate thinning which would reduce fires, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) must use its own dwindling funds to fight the very fires that HFRA was established to prevent. USFS funds currently used to combat the disturbing number of fires each year would better serve the public were they diverted to properly implement HFRA. Currently, the USFS has treated only 2 percent of the 20 million acres authorized under the HFRA initiative. Better implementation of HFRA could meet increasing fiber supply demands, prevent future spikes in the fiber and bioenergy costs and prevent the uncontrolled spread of forest fires!

In this year’s presidential election, candidates tout their plans to encourage “green collar jobs”. Our industry is the original green alternative.

A positive example, “Project Wildfire” in Deschutes County, Ore., demonstrates how a rational community-based effort to forest health can produce results. By thinning forestlands to lessen the threat of wildfires to communities and valuable forest resources, the program is able to recover and deliver slash woody material to a power plant for green energy.

America is desperate for renewable sources of energy. Green energy can be produced responsibly while also improving forest health – all to the benefit of rural economic prosperity.  With over half of all forestland in the Pacific Northwest under federal control, policies that promote smarter utilization of forest biomass are a winning combination for energy, the environment and the local economy. The choice is clear: biomass thinned from our forests used to make green energy is far superior to allowing it to “go up in smoke” during summer wildfires.

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