Everyone knows that our forest products industry operates in a very competitive market and that segments of the industry are going through a difficult transition period. One might conclude that the federal government would encourage the efficient and wise use of our forest resources and protect jobs. Unfortunately, it is not, and amazingly one of our U.S. senators, Susan Collins, has been criticized in the national press for fighting to save Maine jobs.
Biomass is a significant source of efficient energy for forest products manufacturing facilities and revenue for timberland owners. As wood is turned into value-added products, every part of the tree is used, including using waste wood — limbs, tops and bark — for the production of energy and heat. This offsets the use of fossil fuels, provides logging with income and allows for landowners to make use of poor-quality trees, which is the basis of good forest management.
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed its longstanding policy and decided to regulate woody biomass as a greenhouse gas generator. A year later, the agency put that decision on hold, promising a revised standard in 2014. That standard has yet to come, leaving mills in uncertainty about investments in locally sourced energy production.
In order to resolve this uncertainty, Collins and Sen. Angus King, along with their colleagues in the Senate, introduced and supported an amendment to an energy bill that would recognize the carbon-neutrality and renewable nature of forest biomass and encourage investment and sound forest management. This is important because renewable fuels receive incentives in order to compete with fossil fuels.
The federal government encouraged the use of biomass for energy for decades, recognizing the fact that the carbon in wood is recycled atmospheric carbon dioxide. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and convert it to wood. That carbon returns to the atmosphere when wood rots or burns. Regardless of one’s perspective on the effect of carbon emissions on the climate, it makes no sense to equate carbon from biomass with that from fossil fuels, which has been locked underground for millions of years.
The lack of a clear federal standard on biomass creates uncertainty that inhibits needed investment in our mills, and the loss of biomass markets has a direct negative effect on jobs, from the logger in the woods, to the trucker who hauls the wood to the mill, to the foresters and landowners who manage our forests. This is different than other renewable energy sources that produce few jobs once they are built.
In spite of these facts, biomass opponents have criticized Collins for her leadership in helping our nation return to a policy that reflects the renewable nature of wood and the jobs it supports in Maine. They claim the use of biomass for energy results in land conversion or over harvesting. The reality is that poor-quality wood and waste or residual products are used for energy, and they are part of the regular product stream that comes from the woods and from mills. Another criticism is that because it takes decades for trees to grow, the carbon released by burning wood today is a pollutant. But for every ton of wood that is used to generate electricity, millions of trees are growing and absorbing carbon from the air. Sustainable management keeps this in balance over time.
Our forests and the people who manage them and produce products from wood have a wonderful story to tell. American forests absorb 13 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. These forests produce the raw materials for home builders, papermakers, sawmills, furniture makers and other activities that support valuable products and high-paying jobs. The resource does this while quietly growing year after year. Even with all the wood we use as a nation and in Maine, we have more timber volume in Maine today than we did in 1900.
Collins has provided thoughtful and sound leadership on this issue. She deserves our support and praise for fighting for Maine jobs.
Peter Triandafillou is vice president of woodlands at Huber Resources Corp.