Biomass creates opportunities for wildlife, agriculture

By Lisa Gibson
Posted November 3, 2009, at 2:32 p.m. CST

There could be a balance in managing land for energy and wildlife simultaneously, creating several opportunities for both sectors, according to Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever.

Nomsen spoke at the Great Plains Institute's Nov. 2 conference, The Future of Coal and Biomass in a Carbon-Constrained World: Technology and Policy Opportunities for the Midwest, held on the North Dakota State University campus. "There are some intriguing possibilities," he said of that balance. Prescribed burning, while limited in many parts of the country, can ensure plant residual is removed and recycled to keep the land productive. Harvesting biomass removes vegetation and keeps it in an early plant successional stage rotation, he said. Removing exotic, invasive plant species such as reed canary creates a better habitat and those plant species might be beneficial for biofuels production, he added.

Also speaking at the conference was Robert Bonnie, senior environment and climate advisor to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Enormous opportunities exist for the agricultural sector in climate change legislation, Bonnie told the crowd of about 115 people from all over the world including China, Denmark and the Netherlands. "If we do it right; if we get the incentives right," he said.

The two large climate change markets for agriculture are energy and carbon offsets, he said. Land stewardship activities can make carbon credits an attractive market, but Bonnie cautioned that if skepticism is not addressed responsively, it will eliminate those markets.

"It's also important to note that there are costs to inaction," he said. The U.S. EPA will move forward with some kind of legislation and the country is better off if it is comprehensive. It's crucial that rural America is at the table for climate legislation in order to get the design right to provide benefits and opportunities, Bonnie emphasized. "The most important thing is that rural America participates in this debate," he said.

U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., addressed conference attendees via satellite, both focusing on current legislation. "It will take time to properly craft climate legislation," Conrad said, adding that biomass should play a large role in the renewable energy and fuel portfolio. Climate change legislation will not be on the floor of the Senate this year, Dorgan said, as crafting healthcare legislation has taken longer than expected, but it will be on the floor next year. Coal, however, will continue to play a role in the country's energy future, Conrad said, adding that 90 percent of North Dakota's electricity comes from coal. Climate change without incorporating coal would drastically increase the price of electricity, he added.

According to Dorgan, one-fourth of oil pumped globally goes to the U.S. and 70 percent of that is from outside the country. While plenty of work is being done, there still is a long way to go, he said.