Clearing Forests for Biofuel

An interesting quandary arises in considering biofuels.

On the one hand there is an accepted rule of thumb that biofuels are in principle carbon neutral – that the carbon released into the atmosphere came from the atmosphere in the first place.

On the other hand there is the accepted belief that forest clearing is an important contributor to greenhouse gas accumulation.

These basic ideas run into each other when there is wood burning used as a fuel for modern energy systems:

In a 2-1 decision [PDF], a U.S. Court of Appeals panel in the District of Columbia Circuit struck down a 2011 Environmental Protection Agency rule that deferred for three years regulating the greenhouse gas emissions from biomass burning in the same manner the agency regulates plants that burn fossil fuels.

Biomass power plants that burn forest products weren’t the only type of energy production at issue here, but they were a big bone of contention. Supporters of forest biomass – including leading liberals in the U.S. Senate like Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley – argue that forest biomass can be far less harmful to the environment because carbon released in burning the material is matched by carbon pulled from the atmosphere by new-growing trees.

But the science is far from clear on that point and conservation groups – like the Center for Biological Diversity, which brought the suit against the EPA, and the Natural Resources Defense Council – argue that “emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities that burn biomass can accelerate global warming and contribute to a host of respiratory and cardiac problems.”

It’s tricky business on the carbon front alone. I think it’s clear that biofuels are carbon neutral on the time scale of biomass replacement. If forests regrow where forests are harvested, that is carbon neutral, though in many cases it can be very environmentally destructive in other ways. But regrowing a forest can take a very long time, and is contingent on a lot of things going right, often after something (a clearcut) has in an ecological sense gone very wrong.


  1. Pingback: Another Week of Climate Disruption News, July 21, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  2. Sounds like the question is "to clearcut or not to cut". But tertium datur: it depends how you cut, what you cut, how large the area, how much residues are left on the ground, what machines are used, etc.

    E.g. North America got this gigantic bark beetle infestion. You can let the trees die and rot and release their carbon naturally, or you can cut them and burn them and have less beetles plus energy. In many parts of Europe, forest owners are obligated to cut and de-bark all beetle infested trees.

    I guess there's quite a difference in forestry cuture between Old and New World. In my mind American forestry is mostly total and widespread destruction, centuries behind European forestry, and now all is to late. The concept of sustainability was actually born in German forestry: E.g. Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645-1714) or Heinrich Cotta (1763-1844)

  3. Thanks, I actually learned something useful here on the subject; first time in a while. mt's remarks also food for thought.

    I just signed a petition against allowing bottom trawling and other heavy industrial fishing in the north Atlantic. My opinion, while admittedly I'm hot under the collar about the topic, is that allowing the concentration of wealth enables sociopaths.

    Not long ago there was some research showing that the top echelons of wealth and acquisitiveness have an undue share of sociopathy. (Example: Koch $50 tip to doorman at 74 Park Avenue who does extra work for them all year long.) Seems once they have lot, their desire to have more increases and trumps any consideration of societal or future benefit relative to current profit. Corporations, of course, can be the most soulless of all, not at all like the cowardly lion with no heart who wants one.

    I like the idea of managing forest degradation at this smaller scale, with benefit to all. But the the good ole US of A that would interfere with the fundamental liberty to kill at will for profit. We have the same problem in the tar sands mining, fracking, and mountaintop coal removal.

    One problem with the model of continuous expansion is the sheer scale of it. It's not just what we have today, but how much more we expect tomorrow. Moore's law gone rogue.

  4. "Gas companies like Exxon Mobil, and Chevron spent $726 Million dollars lobbying the federal government from 2001-2011. As a result, fracking is now exempt from major federal statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxics Release Inventory, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act"

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