Today is “Back to the Future Day” – the day in the whimsical Back to the Future Part II in which Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel forward thirty years in time from 1985 to “fix” a problem to preserve the past and thereby save the future. Sound confusing and a bit far-fetched? Well, it is, but no more than the “back to the future” arguments that are emerging on biomass energy.
Well financed critics, including advocacy groups posing as “investigative reporters,” are painting a picture of biomass energy as a 1.21 gigawatt engine that will decimate forests in the Southern United States and leave the landscape in disrepair far into the future. The hype attempts to use the export of industrial pellets to Europe for energy production as a stalking horse to discourage the use of biomass energy as a renewable, carbon beneficial energy source.
Placing the well-established and highly credible science establishing the carbon benefits of biomass energy aside for a moment, a simple look at the data creates a head-scratching disconnect between the dire predictions of the future and the current situation. In 2014 pine removals for export pellets in the regions occupied by export pellet facilities totaled .08% of the total inventory of trees in pine forests. Hardwood removals for export pellets in these same regions as a percent of total hardwood inventory is even smaller. Even if removals quadrupled in the near future (using commonly referenced predictions) they would be less than one third of one percent of total inventory.
So why all the fuss? Well, it may be that, like Marty and Doc, we have to look to the past to understand today’s predictions about the future. Consider the following dire warnings:
“[These] mills have encouraged massive, industrial-scale clearcutting across the South.”
“[M]ills have sprung up like measles across the landscape of the South, causing unprecedented forest destruction.”
Sound familiar? These were the arguments made 15-20 years ago about mills built in the South to improve the efficiency of producing wood chips for paper production and export. They were made by the same organizations attacking bioenergy today. Did the dire predictions made back then come true? No. Today the forests they referenced grow twice as much wood in a year than is harvested.
If forest destruction is simply a stalking horse used by the anti-biomass crowd, then what is the real target? Perhaps the following excerpt from a recent “special report” financed by anti-biomass activists and made to appear like independent journalism provides a clue:
“In the nation’s east, 80 percent of forests are owned by families and corporations. That leaves tremendous swaths of… forests throughout the Southeast vulnerable to economic trends and to the whims of their owners.”
Perhaps the real “threat” behind the attacks on biomass is forests that are privately owned by families and businesses and the markets that sustain them over time. If Marty and Doc were here we could send them to the future so they could tell us what is going to happen as private forest owners respond to new market opportunities for biomass or anything else. Then again, our experience with the past suggests that we already know – markets and private forests thrive together. It also suggests that so long as we have private forests and forest products markets in the U.S. South, the same tired, hyperbolic arguments we see from biomass opponents today, repeating what they have said in the past, will likely appear again in the future.