NAFO refutes OSU biomass study conclusions

By Anna Austin | October 26, 2011

The authors of a study recently published by Oregon State University’s College of Forestry says that the production of bioenergy from U.S. West Coast forests would increase carbon dioxide emissions by at least 14 percent over the next 20 years, with the exception of forests in high-risk zones weakened due to insect outbreaks or drought.

“Regional Carbon Dioxide Implications of Forest Bioenergy Production,” which was published on Oct. 24 in Nature Climate Change, examined 80 forest types in 19 regions in Oregon, Washington and California, ranging from temperate rainforests to semiarid woodlands. Four basic scenarios were used, which were business as usual, forest management primarily for fire prevention purposes, additional levels of harvest to prevent fires but also make such operations economically feasible, and significant bioenergy production while contributing to fire reduction.

David Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, said the study’s findings are based on wild assumptions. “One of the common threads of studies like this one is that the outcome all depends on these up-front assumptions,” he said.  “In this case, they look at the potential of treating 5 percent of the forests in the region, for a 20-year rotation of treatments, adding that on top of what they call ‘business as usual’ forest management practices.”

If one considers that assumption and extrapolates it to other parts of the nation, it would suggest that productivity in timber management will increase by a factor of 20 percent, notwithstanding the constraints such as cost or feasibility, according to Tenny. “You have to think about whether that even makes sense as an assumption,” he said. “Looking at it another way, 5 percent of all of the 200 million acres of forest land in the Northwest area is 10 million acres more than what we’re already doing out there. Comparatively, the U.S. Forest Service with its 155 million acres of national forest system lands, and the U.S. Department of Interior land which is a couple hundred million acres, in their best year combined were able to treat 1.4 million acres of forestland.”

The study assumes the Northwest would see a tenfold increase in that number during the next 20 years. “The suggestion that we would or can do that is wild,” Tenny said. We won’t and can’t see a 20 percent increase of activity because resources aren’t available for it to occur, and the forests out there aren’t designed for it.”

Tenny said that over the past 50 years, despite increases in demand for a variety of products such as wood, paper and energy, the total forest volume on the ground has increased by 51 percent. Additionally, the carbon added to the atmosphere has already been removed, but the study’s approach does not take that into account, rather it assumes a carbon debt that has to be repaid.

Tenny doesn’t think the study will have any influence on future biomass energy policy. “It will probably crumble under its own weight,” he said. It takes a very short time frame, doesn’t look at the carbon cycle as it really is—at a scale that should be global—while confining the scale to a very narrow period of time using rotations that are four times shorter than the standard in the area. When you’re using scales that are ten times more than the federal agencies do nationally in a year, you’re going to come up with a conclusion that there will be more carbon in the atmosphere in the results.”


7 Responses

  1. Mary S. Booth



    The steady drip-drip-drip of good science is chipping away at the myths that hold the "biomass is a low carbon fuel" myth up. The comments above show an defensive, anti-science attitude that puts industry considerations above climate considerations, even to the extent of putting the climate at risk.

  2. Jesse Sewell




  3. scott wesley



    We appreciate the study, but refute it as wel. We believe we can help! We represent a bio source system, developed overseas, that has a world wide patent, and can eliminate fly ash / coal ash, even garbage, animal waste, sludge, and petroleum waste, while capturing Co2 and producing 3 renewable energy sources. Our technology can thermal chemically process, the fly ash, (or waste) and convert it to electricity, oxygen, and methanol and we have proven this since 2003. All this with ZERO CARBON EMISSIONS! Our first plant was erected in Serbia in 2003 to help the government there recover from the ravishes of war and NATO bombing. There, it was able to produce the three sources mentioned above, with the electricity funneled back into the grid, and the methanol used to fuel their stoves, heat their homes, and utilize for their automobiles and trucks. We have recently sold a system to Saudi Arabia for the use of petroleum waste and they have plans to build a 2 GW plant to produce millions and millions of gallons of methanol from the waste. A 20 MW system produces 24 million gallons of methanol on an 8 hour 5 day work week. Price of methanol currently is about $1.36 per gallon. Our thoughts are to have the methanol integrated with gasoline and chemically restructured to meet the oil demands of the future. Yet, our system also produces quite a bit of ELECTRICITY WHICH CAN BE FUNNELED INTO YOUR GRID, and oxygen too. FYI ~ Our system is a prefab system that can be transported by train, or flat bed truck and it consists of 4 cells. These cells filter PMs, NOx, SOx, and Co2 and convert to methanol by filtering in steam to take the syngas and reform it to produce methanol. All in all, we can create jobs, eliminate fly ash ~ coal ash, lower or eliminate Co2 emissions, capture without burying in the ground the Co2 from your stacks and convert to three renewable energy sources. These sources will then produce tremendous revenue streams for the electric company! We will also provide scientific and engineering backup to our system and can demonstrate models in Europe or visit a proposed site in the USA, if your organization is interested in this wonderful concept. Also, please feel free to visit us on Facebook at : Scott Wesley Principal / MP BioMass

  4. Jesse Sewell



    I love all the carbon debt mumbo jumbo. The bottom line is that wood is a renewable resource. Industry is pursuing Biomass because it is a proven solution. Scientists can go on debating how many carbon molecules are absorbed by a Quercus Virginiana sappling and all that is wonderful. In the meantime we will be building Biomass facilities because they are cleaner, utilize renewable fuels, create local jobs and save everyone money in the process.

  5. Bioblogger



    It is not clear that the questions the OSU study purports to answer are the ones that needs to be asked. The more relevant questions should be: What is the carbon cycle impact comparison of a fossil based energy paradigm vs. a biogenic one? And, which paradigm is the most sustainable? Environmentally, the carbon cycle is polluted. It has been getting progressively polluted since the introduction of fossil fuels. The atmosphere has 39% more carbon than before the Industrial Revolution. Why? Because the carbon cycle can’t process excess GHG from fossil fuels fast enough (see chart at ). We need more forest management not less. This means more forest products industry to fund best practices research, certification, and management. Why can’t we just leave the forests alone? Because “natural” pre-Industrial Age conditions no longer exist and are bound to get worse with population growth and accelerating global demand for energy. The air is loaded with an unprecedented amount of carbon to the point where it is feared that global climate is changing. This, too impacts, the health of forests and may partially accounts for the upward increase in forest fires in the Western U.S. (see ). How we manage forests to remediate this imbalance should be the focus of OSU studies and a focal point for discussions on alternative energy paradigms. Clean technologies (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal) are a partial solution to our energy crisis but Green technologies involving carbon capture by plants are the only ones that directly address and can help remediate our polluted carbon cycle.

  6. Joe Zorzin



    The original research paper doesn't say, "the production of bioenergy from U.S. West Coast forests would increase carbon dioxide emissions by at least 14 percent over the next 20 years". The figures are "2-14%". But there are so many variables and assumptions in this type of research that any such range is very questionable. Once again, just like with the Manomet Report, these research papers presume too much. Also, the paper claims, "Policies are being developed worldwide to increase bioenergy production as a substitution for fossil fuel to mitigate fossil fuel derived carbon dioxide emissions" But, these policies aren't just to reduce carbon emissions- they're also for strategic reasons- to reduce imports from unfriendly nations and to spend the money here in the USA where it will help our desperate economy. Also, biomass harvests, when done right, are good for the forests in many ways, not just to reduce fire hazzard. At least that paper is honest enough to say, "... it remains unresolved whether this type of forest treatment can satisfy both the aims of preventing wildfire and reducing regional greenhouse gas emissions." If it remains unresolved, then the paper's authors are admitting that their research has proven nothing. Joe Zorzin MA Lic. Forester #261

  7. William Strauss



    The following is from a paper just put out and available on the FutureMetrics website. It is available for download from ____________ The debates over the conclusions of the Manomet Study have staked out territory that would appear to not overlap. On one side is the Manomet Study’s lead author John Gunn’s most recent reaffirmation of their point of view recently published in Renewable Energy World (REW) . On the other side, as Dr. Gunn noted, is our work which was also published in REW . We have good news: We think that the debate is over. For reasons explained below, we are perfectly willing to put aside the “dividend-then-benefit” story and follow Dr. Gunn’s prescription for analysis. But our conclusions will still find carbon neutrality as long as one very important constraint is imposed on the system (and that constraint is one that we are sure the Manomet team would endorse as responsible and necessary). As Dr. Gunn points out, “For greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the policy-relevant question was: What will the atmosphere ‘see’ if Massachusetts switched from fossil fuels to biomass energy?” Dr. Gunn may be surprised to know that we agree that the instant that biomass is used as fuel, the atmosphere will “see” more CO2. We still think that our original critique is valid and that our dividend-then-benefit story accurately reflects reality; but let’s ignore that and proceed based on the initial conditions that Manomet has prescribed. Dr. Gunn says in his recent REW article: “However, as forests grow back, this carbon ‘debt’ is reduced and eventually replaced with a carbon ‘dividend’ (relative to fossil fuels). The length of time to pay off the debt can vary from a decade to a century, depending on an array of factors outlined in our study.” We completely agree with the first part of that statement. Where we believe Dr. Gunn and the Manomet Study are in error is in their choice of scale. Our earth system is complex. When studying complex systems, multi-scale descriptions are needed. Fine scales influence large scale behavior (not the other way around). And therein lays the problem. The Manomet logic is based on large scale. If we ignore our original critique (as we promised we would), then if we combust for example 365,000 tons per year of biomass in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant, we can measure CO2 being emitted. Simple chemistry tells us that the CO2 emitted from biomass is about 57% greater per megawatt-hour than coal. That sounds bad and would be if that CO2 were permanently being added to the atmosphere. But unlike coal (or other fossil based fuels), it is not. Dr. Gunn’s REW discussion acknowledges this in the following sentence: “Furthermore, our evaluation did account for sequestration occurring elsewhere on the landscape. In our Massachusetts study, this landscape-level sequestration was not sufficient to overcome the short-term carbon debt.” The Manomet study centered on the timing of that sequestration and, as the statement above acknowledges, the timing is influenced by the balance of the rate of harvest and the rate of growth. So let’s follow that logic but let’s take the scale from decades to days. In the example CHP facility above, 365,000 tons per year are needed. That sounds like a lot and it is. That is 1000 tons per day every day of the year. But suppose that we impose a very important constraint on the use of biomass for energy: all feedstock has to come from forests that are managed sustainably. Granted, the term “sustainable” is open to a range of interpretations. But in this case let’s follow FSC or SFI guidelines; amongst which is the requirement that that the net stock of biomass on the certified landscape is not depleted. A rule of thumb is that a northeastern forest can sustainably produce about one ton of new growth per acre per year. That means that the 365,000 tons per year of biomass needed to fuel our CHP plant will need 365,000 acres of forestland if we require that the forest does not shrink over time. As FutureMetrics’ partner Les Otten often points out, well managed forests under the FSC or SFI criteria can increase that yield per acre while maintaining soil nutrient levels, good habitat for wildlife, and the quality of the experience for people using the forests. But for this story we will keep the average yield per acre per year at one ton. It is important to realize that our 365,000 ton per year CHP plant does not receive 365,000 tons in one delivery and does not release 365,000 tons of wood’s worth of carbon in one lump either. In fact, the forest products industry can be characterized as a just-in-time manufacturing system. For our CHP plant, 1000 tons per day are sustainably harvested and delivered off of our 365,000 acre FSC or SFI certified forest. So the carbon released into the atmosphere that day is from 1000 tons of wood. The atmosphere “sees” new carbon. But during that same day on our 365,000 acre plot, 1000 new tons of wood grow and sequester the amount of carbon that was just released. At this scale, following the Manomet logic, we wait one day for our dividend. In the Manomet Study, the large scale perspective yields a large scale result. But in this case, we have the same outcome but we do not have to wait 30 to 100 years. Where Dr. Gunn and his associates and I completely agree are on the issues of atmospheric tipping points and the critical need to connect earth systems science to policy. We first overshot our planet’s ability to sustain the use of resources in 1986 . That year it took almost 365 days before we crossed into deficit. Since then it has taken progressively fewer days. This year is took us 267 days (earth overshoot day was September 25, 2011). The precision of that calculation is of course open to debate. But there is no debate on the unsustainability of business as usual. So if we are going to use our forests as a fuel source, we have to care for the resource and make sure it is non-depleting. Otherwise the forest resource is no better than all the other finite resources that humankind is not only depleting but is depleting at an accelerating rate . We are sure that Dr. Gunn and his team would agree. The Manomet Study authors have been very clear in the report, in public presentations, and in the REW article by Dr. Gunn that the study was for the state of Massachusetts. It may very well be that Massachusetts does not have sufficient certified forest acreage to sustain any biomass power projects (we doubt that but we are not experts on Massachusetts forests). However in our state, Maine, the majority of landholdings, representing more than 10 million acres of forestlands, are FSC or SFI (or both) certified. So as long as there is sufficient forest to sustainably supply the fuel, we continue to refute the Manomet Study’s conclusion that the combustion of biomass is not carbon neutral relative to fossil fuel alternatives. Although gathering optimism for actually moving from business as usual in the US to a sustainable future is hard to find, at least we in the cold northern forested states can make fuel from our forests (and from dedicated energy crops) a part of the solution. As long as we need heat we will need combustion. Yes electricity can be made from hydro, solar, wind, and even nuclear with no carbon output. But electricity does not heat homes and does not make heat for industrial processes. Perhaps someday all northern homes will have geothermal heat pumps and will “heat” with electricity. But currently for example only 5.1% of Maine homes use electricity (most of those are heating with resistance heating) and due to the predominance of hard rock ground in Maine, the cost of drilling the deep wells (about 175 feet of well per 500 square feet of heating space) makes geothermal heat pumps a very costly investment. And right now, most of the power for those pumps comes from fossil fuels. Combined heat and power and just plain heat for homes and businesses from a sustainably managed renewable and carbon neutral fuel should be a part of our policy to promote energy independence, economic wellbeing, and environmental stewardship.


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