Beetle-infested wood beneficial to biomass industry

By Anna Austin
Posted June 24, 2009, at 2:28 p.m. CST

The millions of acres of dead, downed and diseased timber infected by pine beetles in Colorado and the Western U.S. could be put to beneficial use by the biomass industry, and also help with forest fire mitigation and suppression, according to Mark Mathis, Pellet Fuels Institute Government Affairs and Commercial Fuel Committee member.

Last week, Mathis, a number of congressmen from western states, representatives of the U.S. departments of agriculture and the interior, state and local officials, and business owners testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Water and Power and Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. All stressed how important it is for the biomass industry to gain access the pine-beetle-damaged wood, and to help Congress formulate a strategic plan to manage the materials.

Mathis is also president of Confluence Energy LLC, which currently is removing affected timber in Colorado and using it to produce wood pellets. The company operates a manufacturing facility in Kremmling, Colo., 70 miles northwest of Denver.

"The utilization of this material from U.S. forests and parks will put value on the material, which is currently considered a substantial liability to U.S. taxpayers," Mathis said. "Confluence Energy has viewed documents created by U.S. Forest Service personnel that suggest that the cost to treat some of the existing area in USFS Region 2 would exceed $220 million over the next three years. Confluence Energy suggests that by lowering some of the existing hurdles in accessing the dead and dying trees, private industry can add value to the material and dramatically reduce the cost to the taxpayers." Mathis said the company estimated the possible savings at about $75 million over five years.

A decision needs to be made quickly, however, as the dead and dying trees have a limited shelf life, Mathis said. "It is estimated that once the trees die and turn red they have eight to 15 years before they blow over," he said. "When trees blow over, they rot dramatically faster and any value from the wood is removed. Every minute we talk and do not act, not only are we are losing value, but we are reducing the time private industry has to get a return on their money to justify investing in these types of projects."

Mathis presented a plan that would require $10 million in grant funding and an additional $20 million in USDA-backed loans. He suggested Confluence Energy build an 8 MMgy to 10 MMgy ethanol plant and said the company has a partnership with a large U.S. fossil fuel company that is interested in a joint venture.

The plan also includes the construction of a 5-megawatt power generation system to satisfy the facility's and Kremmling's energy needs; the retrofit and remodel of the company's existing facility to manufacture high-value wood products; the renovation of an existing rail loading facility to transport finished products to market, and the expansion of Confluence Energy's pellet facility to maximize potential output.

Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., in his testimony, said the amount of diseased trees in Colorado is more than 2 million acres and growing. "We have over 633 miles of electrical transmission lines just in Colorado that are in areas of dead or dying trees," Salazar said. "We also have over 1,300 miles of electrical distribution lines at risk from falling trees or fire. A large fire could destroy many of these lines, causing power outages for months. While a wildfire is just a matter of when, falling trees are occurring now on trails, rancher's fences, camp grounds and power lines."

Seth Voyles, PFI manager of government affairs, said the main thing on the agenda was to evaluate strategies to address the pine beetle wood problem. "For us, the pellet industry is part the solution," he said. Aside from pellets, Voyles said there are many other possible uses for the wood. "When these trees die, they get a blue tinge to them, so there is blue furniture being made out of them as well," he said. "There are a lot of things that can be done--in New Mexico they're allowing people to go in and cut wood for home heating at a very limited price for the permit. This helps with fire suppression and the beetle kill epidemic."

As far as covering the cost of retrieving the wood, Voyles said that varies, depending on whether the damaged wood is on federal, state or private land. Jennifer Hedrick, manager of PFI, said one of the major hang-ups right now is the release of the land by the government and allow access for people to retrieve the materials. "There are some barriers," Voyles agreed. "Especially on federal lands out West, there's always some bureaucratic red tape to go through. There's sensitivity about going into these lands, and sometimes there are no roads to get to them; some roads have limited access and you can't get logging trucks in there; sometimes you'll have timber sales approved by the government and the purchaser and suddenly someone files a lawsuit against it and it stops. There's a whole mess of things that could prevent going in and getting the stuff out-even though everyone's pretty gung-ho about doing it."

Voyles said congress will likely utilize testimony from the hearing to determine what can be done on the federal side and in future legislation to help expedite the process. "There are certain things they don't want to do though, such as short-shift any environmental protocol or standards out there," he said. "They held this hearing to get the best possible strategies that they can to help make decisions, so hopefully something will be done sooner rather than later."