Forests Caught in Tug-of-War Over Biofuel Rules

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When the House Committee on Agriculture opens its hearing on climate legislation this afternoon, its chairman will be pushing another bill aimed at changing the government’s biofuel rules. His arguments on behalf of ethanol have drawn the most attention, but the bill would also open federal forests for biomass production.

That effort is pitting agriculture interests against environmentalists – and it could hold up the climate bill.

Representing the environmentalist perspective is the National Resources Defense Council’s Nathanael Greene, who writes that the bill is an attempt by timber and agriculture interests to weaken “the safeguards designed to ensure that we don’t burn irreplaceable forests for energy.”

He predicts that if it passes, Rep. Collin Peterson’s proposal will encourage deforestation and reduce the climate bill’s 2020 target of a 17% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 6%.

On the other side, Andrew Yost, forest ecologist at the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the Society of American Foresters argue that the impact of Peterson’s changes on the greenhouse gas reductions would be minimal.

The Peterson plan would, among other things, open up forest areas currently restricted from biomass production, such as National Forest roadless areas, wilderness areas and national monuments.

Such areas were designated off-limits to biomass production in the 2007 Energy Bill, which contained a Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) designed to ensure that renewable energy contributes less to global warming than gasoline and diesel. The RFS allows plant material from privately owned natural forests and tree plantations but not from national forests. 

NRDC’s Greene believes that two new policies will drive up demand for biomass: a proposed renewable electricity standard, which will require utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources, and the Renewable Fuels Standard, which mandates an increasing minimum amount of biofuels to be used in future years.

“I estimate that these two policies, combined with the price signal created by the cap itself, could lead to a biomass demand equal to nearly twice our average annual timber harvest for the past two decades (15.5 billion cubic feet of green wood),” Greene writes.

The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) climate bill proposed by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) includes biomass safeguards "to ensure the federal government does not incentivize deforestation, destruction of protected federal forest lands, and increased global warming from biomass," Greene said.

Supporters of the Peterson bill argue that opening those lands and cultivating biomass from forests will help preserve the health of the nation’s forests by removing diseased and bug-infested wood.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) repeatedly made that argument in the House Energy and Commerce Committee during hearings last month on the ACES bill. In a video, he argues that opening up federal forests to biomass production would also reduce forest fires:

“We in this country have had catastrophic fires on our forests – nine million acres a year go up in flames, 47percent of forest budgets are consumed fighting fires. But if you want to do what the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says we should do – and that is effectively manage America’s forest lands – then you need to adopt this amendment to fix this one problem in the biomass definition.”

Deforestation is a climate concern because natural forests absorb and store about a fifth of global carbon emissions. However, Yost at the Oregon Department of Forestry says Peterson’s proposed changes to the biomass definition would not greatly help or hinder efforts to forestall climate change for two reasons.

First, if the biomass is not harvested and nature is left to its devices, the carbon dioxide stored in it would be released to the atmosphere in a forest fire. “So, if you measured it all out compared to two systems, it probably wouldn’t be that much different,” he concludes.

Second, the amount of carbon in the biomass in the country is minuscule compared to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuels, Yost says:

“The amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are being emitted into the atmosphere from all the industrial sources from around the planet are orders of magnitude larger than what our forests are capable of sequestering by using biomass and bioenergy.

"There’s not enough energy in forests to power industry or the transportation sector for one year. … We can take every stick in the forest on planet earth and shove it in U.S. industry, and we couldn’t run it for a year. So that’s what I mean by orders of magnitude. This is peanuts.”

Peterson’s personal fight for the change has little to do with reducing forest fires. His home state, Minnesota, has a strong corn ethanol industry, which doesn’t fare well under the new biofuel standards, which calculate lifecycle emissions for biofuels.

The Agriculture chairman and other farm state lawmakers want those calculations changed so land-use changes, which hit corn ethanol hardest, aren’t taken into account. They say ethanol producers won’t have enough raw material to produce 16 billion gallons a year of cellulosic ethanol by 2022, as they are required to do under the 2007 Energy Bill.

Peterson has 48 co-sponsors for his bill, and he has threatened to use the support of dozens of farm state Democrats to hold up the climate legislation.

“We’re not going to proceed unless we can get this stuff worked out,” Peterson told reporters.

The lead witness at today’s hearing will be Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, who is expected to testify about the impact the ACES climate bill will have on the agriculture industry and on farm states.