In California, there is a debate heating up over whether dead trees should be cleared and burned for biofuel before they burn where they are in yet another devastating West Coast wildfire, which are on track to become both more severe and more frequent thanks to rising temperatures and drier conditions due to climate change. A growing contingent of scientists and experts argues that converting these dead and diseased trees to biomass for energy production will “help to restore forests and reduce CO2 emissions.” As reported by Yale Environment 360, “Drought, a warming climate, and bark-beetle infestations have also killed 147 million California trees since 2013.” The article goes on to report that “scientists say these trees are poised to burn in California’s next round of megafires, threatening the range with blazes so intense they will leave some places unable to establish new forests.”
The United States’ Forest Service’s overzealous suppression of fires over the last century in California has backfired, allowing for the massive accumulation of vegetation that would have burned in natural, smaller-scale fires a hundred years ago, and is now abundant tinder for the next megafire. These increasingly common massive wildfires in California, on top of burning homes and entire communities, also “pollute the air with choking smoke, and release large amounts of CO2.” The 2007 Moonlight Fire alone created a staggering amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to yearly the emissions of 750,000 gasoline combustion car engines.
Advocates of these biofuel projects say that on top of restoring California’s forests and lessening CO2 emissions, these initiatives would also help to revitalize rural economies by creating jobs, including in the widely suffering blue-collar sector. Not everyone, however, is a fan of this plan. “Biomass projects such as [these] are controversial, especially in the southeastern U.S., where states have rushed to convert forests into pellets for export to power plants in Europe,” reports Yale Environment 360. “That market opened up after a much-criticized European Union decision to categorize biomass energy as a form of renewable energy.”
Whereas in California these extra dead and dying trees are a liability, in other regions projects like these encourage environmentally devastating logging in healthy and ecologically vital forests. “As production has nearly doubled at facilities from Virginia to Florida, large-scale logging has had a major impact on Southern forest ecosystems, among the most diverse in the country,” reports Yale. “More than 35 million acres of natural forests have been lost, replaced by 40 million acres of single-crop pine plantations; local species extinctions doubled between 2002 and 2011, according to the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental organization protecting Southern forests. The American Lung Association and numerous health organizations blame biomass burning for a sweeping array of health harms, from asthma to cancer to heart attacks.”
This debate is coming back to the forefront as yet another Sierra Nevada fire season approaches. It’s also coinciding with a global pandemic and what is the beginning of what will likely be a yearslong recession. The biofuel sector, like so many other economic sectors, has been hit hard by the coronavirus. But this could potentially be an ideal moment for proponents of dead and dying tree biomass in California to plead their case to be included in stimulus packages for post-corona economic recovery with some compelling arguments for bringing energy sector jobs to rural California.
Many energy industry leaders and environmentalists have characterized the novel coronavirus’ interruption to the global economy’s status quo, as well as oil’s historic crash, as a unique opportunity to redouble the world’s efforts to transition to renewable and alternative energy and to create a “new energy order.” Indeed, some countries, primarily in Europe, have seized this opportunity by giving green energy a boost in their pandemic stimulus packages. So far, however, the United States is falling behind on this front. But if sectors like solar, wind, and yes, even tree biomass facilities can make their voices heard, backed up with “a raft of new studies” that show the sector’s potential for job creation and economic recovery, perhaps their luck could change.