The use of forest products for energy has been termed “dirtier than coal” by some environmental activists. One environmental group has even launched an “our forests aren’t fuel” campaign, asserting that “big energy companies are burning forests to fuel power plants” and that “burning trees to produce electricity … creates more carbon pollution than coal, gas, and oil.”
However, recent scientific findings in the upcoming Journal of Forestry conclude that “the increased use of forest-derived materials most likely to be used for bioenergy in the United States results in low net greenhouse gas emissions, especially compared with fossil fuels.”
There is no dispute that America’s forests are unparalleled at absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, comprising over 90 percent of the terrestrial carbon sink in the United States. According to the EPA, America’s forests absorb 15 percent of U.S. annual greenhouse gas emissions. But it is often forgotten that more than 70 percent of U.S. timberlands are privately owned, so the “environmental services” of terrestrial carbon capture—a valuable public benefit—is largely provided by private forest owners, free of charge.
It is also the case that private forests sustainably produce timber products and promote new timber growth far more efficiently than our public forests. In fact, private timberlands produce 90 percent of our timber and other forest products. This is no surprise since private owners have the financial incentive to manage their forests for long-term productivity and yield, while public land managers must manage for multiple uses such as recreation, and must also depend on uncertain public funding for forest management.
But there are risks in private forest ownership—owners must nurture and tend to their growing forests, protecting them against pests, disease and wildfire in hope of a reasonable profit at the time of harvest decades in the future. One way owners invest in forest management is through thinning, or the removal of some young or less valuable trees to provide additional space and sunlight to concentrate future growth in larger, more valuable trees destined for later harvest as lumber. Thinning also is used to salvage wood from trees that will be lost due to natural mortality, and to enhance pest and wildfire resistance. Obviously, such investment requires money.
If landowners can sell thinnings and forest residues as an energy resource, they can better afford proactive forest management. Moreover, when thinnings and residues are not used for energy or other purposes, they are often left in or around the forest to decompose, or even collected and burned as waste. Under those circumstances, at best the carbon from thinnings will be released back into the atmosphere with their value as an energy resource lost; at worst, they will decompose, releasing more methane which is considered by scientists to have a far greater “global warming potential” than carbon dioxide.
This dynamic relationship between investment and private forest ownership was well understood by the scientists publishing in the Journal of Forestry—some of whom have been advising the EPA on the correct methodologies and policies to track the greenhouse gas emissions of forest-derived materials used for energy. This dynamic relationship is also understood by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who view managed forests as a powerful tool in absorbing increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it in growing trees, harvested wood products, energy fuels and forestland soils. As the IPCC states, “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”
Therefore, the surprising and perhaps counterintuitive reality is, the more we value and use our forests, the more investment they will attract, the more acreage will be managed as timberlands, and the better our private forest system will perform in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by promoting vigorous tree growth, by storing carbon in long-lived wood products, and by providing low-carbon substitutes for fossil fuel. On the other hand, if the EPA limits the opportunity for private forest owners to use thinnings and residuals for energy, landowners will not only have less incentive to engage in proactive forest management, they will have less incentive to expand or even maintain their private forest landholdings. Should that happen, we will not only lose private forestland acreage, but the public environmental services they provide.
Let us hope that the EPA heeds the advice of these scientists.
Garman is a principal and managing partner at Decker Garman Sullivan LLC, an energy technology, environment and management consulting firm. He was assistant secretary and under secretary of Energy from 2001-2007 under the George W. Bush administration.