In recent weeks, the U.S. biomass industry has experienced a renewed round of criticism from some in the environmental community and, subsequently, a few media outlets, suggesting that a growing energy market for working forests, particularly in the southern United States, is wiping out forestlands and the environmental benefits that come with them.
Sadly, these wildly inaccurate assertions have been made before and reflect what seems to be a deep and long-running misunderstanding of how landowners are not only meeting the needs of existing and new markets for wood products, but doing it sustainably and in an environmentally responsible way.
Two years ago, a 25x’25 Wood-to-Energy Work Group released a National Wood-To-Energy Roadmap – A Guide for Developing Sustainable Woody Biomass Solutions. The report shows how focused use of woody biomass helps meet America’s energy needs while increasing the nation’s forestland base and improving the environmental services that land provides.
A principal finding of the roadmap and its policy recommendations is that the nation’s commercial timber land base has been relatively stable over the past several decades. Furthermore, investments in forest management have resulted in a significant increase in volume growth over the same time period. Forest supplies are growing due to greater investment, and can respond to increases in demand, including energy uses.
Basically, a close examination of the data will show that forestland owners are not simply cutting down forests and burning trees to generate electricity. In fact, the numbers show that these land owners recognize the need to meet market demands in a way that not only boosts the local economy, but sustains the carbon-reducing benefits of those lands, all while providing ample wildlife habitat, cleaner waters, and even recreational opportunities.
Some historical perspective recently provided by Dave Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, notes that over the course of the 20th Century, the U.S. population increased by 370 percent, an explosion that brought with it a boom in the middle class and its desire for a higher quality of life. That, in turn, spurned a similar boost in demand for wood products. For example, housing starts jumped nearly 700 percent over the century, and pulp production surged 25-fold. Still, forestland area remained constant at some 755 million acres (450 million of that is privately owned). And the volume of trees actually increased by 50 percent over the period.
And, while meeting increased consumer demand for everything from construction materials to paper to energy, our forests are still capturing enough carbon to offset 14 percent of all U.S. industrial carbon emissions each year, not to mention providing 2.8 million jobs. This is all accomplished, in part, due to a framework of federal, state and local laws that have evolved over the years to keep U.S. forests the most productive and sustainable in the world.
To look at the southern United States (13 states, from Virginia to Texas), according to the University of Georgia, there are 27 pellet mills in the region using mill residues and four using roundwood. The U.S. Forest Service says production of wood as feedstock for biomass energy systems amounted to 19 million green tons, a figure that reflects the growth in use of wood for renewable energy over decades. For some perspective, that energy feedstock total compares to 129 million tons for pulpwood, 124 million tons for lumber, 106 million tons as byproducts from mill residues, 27 million tons for veneer and plywood, and 9 million tones for composite panels like chipboard.
A lot of attention has been paid of late to a growing European market for U.S wood pellets, particularly those from the South. It should be noted that Europe has some stringent sustainability criteria that wood pellets they import must meet.
The Forest Service says that last year, the South shipped 1.9 million tons of pellets to Europe, a number that is predicted to grow to 6 million tons by 2020. The 11.9 million green tons of roundwood needed to meet those EU export projections (it will actually be less; much of the export product will come from mill residues) would represent less than 3 percent of total wood product utilization in the South. Furthermore, the total wood inventory in southern forests is 13.3 billion tons, so the amount of that needed to meet the European export projections is less than one-tenth of one percent.
Far from threatening U.S. forests, new energy markets are helping sustain them, providing landowners with the financial incentive to do just that. The 25x’25 Alliance believes forestland owners are making a strong case to counter questionable claims about the sustainability of new markets. Our forests are healthier than they’ve ever been. The stability of U.S. forest systems is in good hands.