[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.”