Study: Using NW forests for biofuels will not reduce carbon

Oct 24, 2011

A new study from Oregon State University says that producing biofuels from forests in the Northwest could increase the region’s carbon emissions.

Woody bioenergy is a mouthful to say, but it’s something a lot of politicians are talking about. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is one of them. He wants to turn wood chips and trees removed from overgrown forests into energy. And help out struggling rural communities in the process.

But scientist Tara Hudiberg isn’t sure bioenergy is all that.

“In the search for some kind of fossil fuel replacement, this isn’t going to help very much.”

Not a good substitute

Hudiburg is with Oregon State University. She’s the lead author of a study on carbon emissions from forest bioenergy published this week.

Hudiberg looked at a scenario where dense forests are thinned to reduce the risk of wildfires. And the trees that are removed are burned to generate electricity, or processed to provide ethanol for your car. It’s the kind of bioenergy plan Governor Kitzhaber has been promoting. But Hudiberg says it actually increases carbon emissions.

“We found that if you harvest wood for energy, whether it be for fire prevention or simply for energy itself, the emissions associated with these activities are more than the savings that you get by substituting for fossil fuels."

The crux of the problem, she says, is that wood just isn’t nearly as concentrated a form of energy as oil is.

Competing research

Tim Raphael is the governor’s communications director. He hadn’t read Hudiberg’s study. But he said thinning trees creates jobs and improves forest health.

And he cited other research showing that burning forest biofuels can reduce emissions if it replaces fossil fuel use.

“Helping to continue to grow the emerging biomass energy industry in the state is a policy priority for the governor and any full-carbon accounting clearly demonstrates that biomass energy is a net benefit in terms of a carbon footprint."

Hudiberg, the OSU researcher, agrees that forest thinning has other benefits. And she says that thinning in a few types of very unhealthy dry forests could be carbon neutral.

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