[OPINION] Wood Pellets: Don’t Cut and Burn Forests, Preserve Them as Carbon Sinks

[Read the opposing view to this opinion piece, “Wood Pellets: Modern Wood Heating Making Inroads Across Northeast,” by Charlie Niebling of Innovative Natural Resource Solutions]

– by Janet Sinclair, Founding Member, Concerned Citizens of Franklin County

The Franklin and Berkshire Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG and BRCOG), in partnership with Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER), Massachusetts Forest Alliance, Franklin Land Trust, and others have formed a coalition to leverage up to $25 to $30 million of mostly public funds to create a National Forest designation in Western Massachusetts. Claiming ample public input, the project needs state and federal legislation for it to happen, and the FRCOG and BRCOG are in the process of writing the state law, hoping to get it passed in the coming months.

The Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership (MTWP) is defined as “A Plan for Forest-Based Economic Development and Conservation.” At this juncture, it is a vaguely defined set of activities with an advisory committee made up largely of commercial forestry interests. The centerpiece of the plan is to pay $5-6 million for a wood pellet manufacturing facility that would take “waste wood” out of the forest, and increase the demand for pellets by using a state funding agency (Massachusetts Clean Energy Center) to pay to install wood pellet boilers in the schools, as well as other buildings and residences.

Another $1.8 million would place 1,800 acres of land (of more than 281,140 forested acres in the 21 towns) currently actively harvested into a conservation restriction that would allow the owners to get paid to do what they are already doing with their land.

Unfortunately, most of the public is convinced that our forests need to be managed and have little understanding of what forest management really is. And in spite of a massive and largely successful public effort to shut down biomass power plants in our area, the downsides of thermal biomass energy production remain largely unknown, especially in our small rural towns.

Just like everywhere else, forests left to return to old growth sequester carbon at double the rate than forests that are “managed.” As Massachusetts DOER writes regulations for subsidizing thermal biomass it will give lip service to “sustainable harvesting.” We know that “management” and “sustainable harvesting” means using a forested area as a crop, not as an ecological treasure.

Biomass energy production, of course, means burning wood. Calculations for one of proposed Mohawk School District pellet boilers showed a rate of 166% of carbon dioxide emissions compared to a boiler using propane or low sulfur oil. The particulate matter (PM) emissions would increase 1,500 fold. These numbers were based on the performance of very high efficiency wood boilers. Other boilers and pellet stoves, also being promoted and heavily subsidized by state agencies, would perform considerably worse.

The health effects of PM 2.5 are well established, and are especially harmful for high-risk populations including school-aged children, and yet the Mohawk School District has a state goal of a wood pellet boiler in every school.

With these downsides of biomass energy, how does so much of the public’s money get funneled this way? The Massachusetts Forest Alliance and others have managed to produce a better lobbying effort to get laws passed in Massachusetts than the opponents were able to mount to stop them. The usual arguments get made, the main ones being that wood is not a fossil fuel, is local and “carbon neutral.” And a major mandate of these funding agencies in Massachusetts, it turns out, are jobs creation programs, and they are not directly accountable for public health or environmental outcomes. For the wood pellet plant in Western Massachusetts, the facility would employ between 15 and 30 people.

If the public remains unaware that the best use of our forests in regards to climate change is to let them grow, not use them to displace fossil fuels, we will allow predictable and potentially devastating outcomes. Without public concern, lawmakers will continue to succumb to the pressures of the forest industry and pay to cut our forests, diminish our soils, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and destroy natural habitats, all the while damaging the public’s health.

If the public is forced to pay for forest related activity, the best outcomes would occur if we put more land into forest reserves to sequester carbon, not harvest them. As the Paris climate agreement recognizes, protecting and expanding forests is our best tool for taking climate-warming CO2 out of the air. Defending forests should be among our highest priorities. This would be especially significant in New England, which is considered to be the most successful reforestation outcome in the world.

As for the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the 21 towns have to vote to opt in to participate. With the designation of a “National Forest” and images of protecting wild areas in the public’s mind, it will take effort to set the record straight. With more information to concerned residents, hopefully enough towns will say “no.”

One comment

  • I consider Janet to be a good friend. She is one of the few anti biomass people who can still carry on a respectful discussion with pro forestry people- but I do beg to differ on some of her points here.

    She says, “…most of the public is convinced that our forests need to be managed and have little understanding of what forest management really is.” Actually, most people believe SOME forests should be managed, not all forests. I only wish MORE people believed forests should be managed- because as a forestry consultant in Mass. for 43 years, I’ve found that the majority of forest owners DO NOT manage their forests, other than occasionally allowing a “timber beast” to rape their forest- but that isn’t “forest mgt.”- that’s forest miss management.

    She says, “Just like everywhere else, forests left to return to old growth sequester carbon at double the rate than forests that are “managed.” I’d like to see proof of that. It’s true that old growth will continue to sequester carbon for centuries- which fact many pro forestry people don’t grasp. I love old growth forests. One of my favorite people is Bob Leverett, the “old growth guru”, here in Mass. I’ve video taped him measure old growth trees. He has measured old trees still adding mass. But that doesn’t prove that managing forests results in less carbon sequestration- since much of the wood is removed, some goes into long lived products like furniture and homes.

    But, my response to Janet’s post is that all the forests are not going to be allowed to grow into old growth. Should we build homes with cement or plastic, both of which are far worse, environmentally?

    She says, “Biomass energy production, of course, means burning wood. Calculations for one of proposed Mohawk School District pellet boilers showed a rate of 166% of carbon dioxide emissions compared to a boiler using propane or low sulfur oil. The particulate matter (PM) emissions would increase 1,500 fold.” Do we really want to continue burning propane and oil of any form? Both often come from fracking- or, imported from the war torn Middle East. I’d love to see the document that says emissions would increase 1,500 fold. If that’s the case, then we need better engineering of those facilities. Cars/trucks/jets emit vast amounts of carbon- but I don’t see many people calling for the end of those means of transportation. It really seems a stretch to conclude that biomass will wipe out the forests, cause immense health problems and contribute greatly to GW. Maybe to some degree, but so doesn’t everything else Americans do. Who are the saints out there who don’t emit carbon? At least the forests can, sooner or later, resequester that carbon. What other energy form that releases carbon can do that? And, does anyone think solar and wind farms are awesome? I know Janet doesn’t- that I know. Solar belongs on roofs and wind– maybe on the high prairie or in the ocean- not on fields and forests.

    She says, “The health effects of PM 2.5 are well established, and are especially harmful for high-risk populations including school-aged children, and yet the Mohawk School District has a state goal of a wood pellet boiler in every school.” Other studies show that car exhaust and cigarettes cause much of the asthma problem with children. I have a nephew who has asthma- his father smoked 3 packs a day. My parents didn’t smoke and I didn’t get it- though I lived close to a belching paper factory- which in my youth belched disgusting black smoke 24/7- many, many times more PM than a modern biomass facility.

    She says, “For the wood pellet plant in Western Massachusetts, the facility would employ between 15 and 30 people.” Right, maybe- but you’re forgetting all the loggers, foresters, truckers, chain saw makers, etc.

    She says, “If the public remains unaware that the best use of our forests in regards to climate change is to let them grow, not use them to displace fossil fuels, we will allow predictable and potentially devastating outcomes.” But Janet, how do you propose to lock up all forests to grow into old growth forests? I should think before going to that extreme, you’d fight to get people riding horses instead of cars, to stop all airplanes, and to force people to become vegetarians. And if all forests are locked up- what will we build homes with and furniture and toilet paper? We can’t lock up all forests- some should be locked up. I’ve been saying for years that if half of all forests were locked up and the other half properly managed- we could grow all the wood we need, though few forestry folks support me on this.

    Joe

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s