Western Forest Health and Biomass Energy Potential was published in April 2001. The Oregon Department of Energy commissioned this study to explore the connections between the forest resource situation in Oregon and the potential for biomass energy production. The study updated a 1998 "white paper" authored by Neil Sampson and Megan Smith for the Western Biomass Consortium.
The report includes information on forest conditions and changes in the national policy climate for biomass-derived fuel additives. The analysis of forest conditions covers the 11 Western states. The report describes the energy technologies that could provide a market for surplus forest biomass. It concludes with a specific focus on the situation in Eastern Oregon and the prospects for establishing biomass energy facilities within the State.
Significant opportunities exist to link forest health treatment and biomass energy production. This report documents forest conditions in the West, where large areas are likely to experience wildfires that threaten people, communities and the environmental integrity of the forests themselves.
Fire in Altered Ecosystems
Fire has historically shaped millions of acres of forest in the Western United States. Whether induced by lightning or by humans, fire once was the primary means of recycling carbon and nutrients for many forests of all kinds. European settlement and the introduction of grazing, farming, mining, forestry and fire suppression greatly changed forest systems accustomed to periodic fire. These forests underwent a long, slow buildup of woody biomass. In the absence of fire, undergrowth and small trees thrived.
In recent years, the consequences of fire suppression on the ecosystems have become evident. Plant communities too dense for the moisture and nutrient conditions of a particular site compete with each other for limited resources. When the competition becomes excessive during dry spells, major diebacks occur. In many Western climates (characterized by dry summers and cold winters) biological decomposition is too slow to offset the fuel buildup. More living and dead fuels are present, both in larger landscape patches and in the vertical structure of the forest. Any ignition in dry weather is likely to result in a major wildfire that behaves so violently that suppression may be impossible. Such intense fires kill plant communities that were historically tolerant of milder fires. The heat from these intense, unnatural fires causes serious and often permanent soil damage.
Economic and Environmental Fire Costs
Wildfires impose enormous public and private costs. In 1994, the Forest Service spent close to $1 billion on fire suppression activities. Between 1994 and 1999, federal agencies have spent an average of $495 million on fire suppression annually. Fire suppression costs exceeded $877 million in 2000.
The smoke from wildfires affects air quality for weeks, sometimes producing more fine particulate pollution in a few weeks than all the nation´s diesel engines and smokestacks emit in an entire year. Water quality is also at stake. Water-repellant soil conditions can result when intense wildfires leave soil without vegetative protection. Severe wildfires can alter the amount of nutrients, sediment and organic debris delivered to streams and can increase erosion and runoff because of less water absorption by the soil and lower vegetative uptake of soil water. Altered watersheds that no longer provide the normal quantity or quality of water impose hardship and cost on the region.
Facing the Problem with Effective Treatment
Treatment to return forests to a more fire-tolerant condition involves removing excess fuels and introducing prescribed fire when conditions allow low-intensity burns. Although treatment approaches are fairly well known for most conditions, treatment is often absent because the material to be removed has low economic value. At-risk landscapes often cover prohibitively large areas, and many areas lack road access.
Federal lands designated as parks, wilderness or reserves are off-limits to vegetative manipulation. Legally reserved areas limit preventive treatment but do not change the wildfire hazards or the risks a system faces if it burns too severely. The problem of fuel buildup in Western federal forests poses an enormous policy dilemma to the federal government.
Billions of dollars are at stake, as are the futures of hundreds of forest-related communities. In the past, these communities depended heavily on federal timber management policies, and they are now undergoing massive adjustments as federal timber harvests are reduced without associated forest activities or jobs to replace them.
A Role for Biomass Energy
A biomass energy market may be the key to initiating many forest restoration projects. The use of biomass for energy will always be the lowest-value use. Small-diameter or other or non-traditional wood products will out-bid the energy industry for the biomass supply. The biomass energy market, however, can provide a way of disposing of otherwise problematic residual material in a least-cost, if not profitable, manner.
The two leading technological options for converting large amounts of biomass to energy are conversion of biomass to ethanol and conversion of biomass to electricity. Several conversion methods to produce ethanol from cellulosic biomass
, such as forest and agricultural residues, are approaching commercialization today. Two technologies are in operation today for using biomass to generate electric power: traditional combustion technology
and emerging gasification
Short-term cleanup of surplus forest biomass may not be sufficient to support an economical biomass energy project. Sources of biomass other than forests may be important in providing a full feedstock supply over the economic lifetime of a biomass energy plant. In other words, it may be important for proponents of biomass industry development to focus attention on the total biomass opportunities in forest, agriculture and municipal sources in some areas.
Several obstacles must be successfully addressed before biomass energy developers are likely to move into the region. First, to make biomass fuel delivery feasible, forest managers must have a viable market within reasonable distance that pays an adequate price. Second, to assure payback of large initial investments, investors in energy production facilities must have a reliable fuel source at prices that allow competitive production over a long enough period. Today, neither of these situations exists.
Long-Term Vision for Living Forests
Restored and well-managed watersheds could confer significant benefits. The situation cries out for a thoughtful, coordinated approach to new policy that addresses forest management, environmental regulation and energy supply. Such an approach is difficult at best - and is more difficult because the Western situation is larger than any state or local jurisdiction but is only one small part of the federal policy arena. With exceptional challenge, however, often comes exceptional opportunity.
The exceptional opportunity in this case is to create a brighter environmental future less dependent on imported and limited petroleum and more reliant on domestic, sustainable, renewable energy supplies. That future requires additional research and development, as well as policy support to break free of past economic limits. It offers a partial solution to forest problems that seem otherwise intractable. This study suggests that the potential for breaking through the forest health-biomass energy gridlock is as promising in Eastern Oregon as anywhere in the West.