When it comes to the economy of the Pacific Northwest, one axiom remains timeless: What goes around comes around. Yes, the same forests that launched the region’s economy about a century and a half ago — and the same forests where a declining timber industry created multiple problems in recent decades — those same forests now return to offer hope for economic recovery.
Many scientists believe burning wood slash from forests (as well as leftovers from mill work and urban wood waste) could be one of the best renewable energy sources. Granted, burning biomass emits carbon dioxide, but so does rotting, which would occur if the wood is left untended. And so does a forest fire, the other likely fate for this wood. The subject is complex, and the technology is still emerging, but politicians of both major parties believe biomass energy production offers huge potential in jobs and boosting the overall economy of this region.
Last Wednesday, a rather obscure but important bureaucratic ruling was made that enhances the future of biomass power in the Northwest. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it will defer for three years permitting requirements for biomass-fired and other biogenic sources. Biomass projects will be excluded from regulations that require large polluters to reduce their heat-trapping pollution. More time is needed for scientific analysis by independent experts.
This is good news, because cutting edge research of this energy technology may continue. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote in a letter to Congress that she holds a “commitment to exercise whatever the Clean Air Act affords to avoid discouraging the use of renewable, domestically produced fuel in power plants and factories.” And, for three more years at least, biomass will be included in that group of preferred power sources.
According to Peter Goldmark, Washington State Public Lands commissioner, this ruling means more certainty for companies seeking to create jobs and invest in biomass projects. Several such projects are being considered in the state; early research is being conducted on a couple in Southwest Washington. Goldmark said: “EPA is commended for committing to a science-driven process that can credibly distinguish renewable forest biomass from other sources.” He and Gov. Chris Gregoire, both Democrats, wrote Jackson four months ago, asking for the feds not to treat biomass the same as fossil fuel-based energy sources in greenhouse gas regulations.
Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler said in a statement: “Thankfully, the EPA chose to further consider its classification of biomass before imposing job-killing regulations on this promising source of energy.” She looks forward to the day when a permanent decision will “signal to all of the various businesses and industries involved with biomass that they can begin growing and hiring people.”
Here’s the layman’s synopsis of what’s going on: For a century and a half, we chopped down the big stuff in the forest and sold it. Now we can burn the little stuff and create energy.
If only it were that simple. Scientists are divided on how efficiently wood byproducts can be burned. These are influential people. It was scientists, after all, who learned that carbon emitted from rotting and from forest fires might balance the emissions of biomass. That was the key finding that boosted biomass research into high gear, and led the EPA to its informed decision last week. Let the science continue.