Using Oregon's forests for bioenergy production has a down side: increased carbon emissions

By Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian

Oregon's blue-sky thinking on alternative energy envisions the state's forests as a terrific source of biomass. Woody debris from thinning, brush clearing and removing dead trees could generate electricity, heat manufacturing plants and be turned into biofuels.

Better yet, the thinking goes, such work could restore forest health and provide jobs in rural communities in addition to helping the state meet its renewable energy goals. The Oregon Forest Resources Institute calls it the "woody biomass triple win."

Researchers at Oregon State University rain on that notion.

In a four-year study OSU describes as the largest and most comprehensive to date, researchers say managing the forests for biofuel production will increase carbon dioxide emissions from the forests by at least 14 percent.

"Most people assume that wood bioenergy will be carbon-neutral, because the forest re-grows and there's also the chance of protecting forests from carbon emissions due to wildfire," researcher Tara Hudiburg said in an OSU news release. But the study shows removing forest debris for bioenergy use will release more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than current practices burning it or leaving it in place, she said.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, involved 80 types of forests in 19 regions of Oregon, Washington and California, ranging from wet coastal forests to semi-arid woodlands.

Hudiburg and OSU forestry professor Beverly Law, co-author of the report, said the implications of managing forests for energy production have not been fully considered. "If our ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, producing bioenergy from forests will be counterproductive," Law said in the news release.

Others believe the researchers examined the issue from too narrow a view.

Paul Barnum, executive director of the forest research institute, said Oregon's dry eastern forests have "unnaturally high levels of biomass" that can be used to generate electricity and heat.

"If we don't actively manage these forests, we run the risk of catastrophic wildfire" that would be disastrous to wildlife, water quality and buildings, he said in an email.

Norm Johnson, also a forestry professor at Oregon State, is a biomass supporter. Burning wood doesn't produce energy as efficiently as burning fossil fuels. But new tree growth will recapture the excess carbon emissions from biomass over time, he said.

"In the long run, it's better" than burning fossil fuels, Johnson said. "In the short run, yes, we'd probably conclude it's not as efficient."

At this point, Oregon burns "slash," mainly branches and tree tops, left over from logging to reduce fire risk. Using it to produce energy in place of fossil fuels is a better alternative for the environment, Johnson said.

The idea has bipartisan political backing in Oregon and nationally. Gov. John Kitzhaber, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., are among its strong supporters.

Oregon treats biomass as renewable power, the same as solar and wind, when it comes to meeting green power generation requirements. Oregon and the federal government also subsidize forest biomass energy projects.

Kitzhaber remains committed to developing biomass energy for the wide range of benefits it provides, said Tim Raphael, the governor's communications director.

Rural economic development, forest health, reducing the use of fossil fuels and even international energy security are among the factors, Raphael said.

"That's really the filter that we've looked at it through, and I'm not sure that was the filter of the study," he said.

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

"It's never going to be a win-win situation for everything," she said.