Biomass Carbon Accounting and Other Reports of Interest from the University of Idaho Policy Analysis Group

A link to this report showed up in my inbox a while back.

#31. Accounting for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Wood Bioenergy. Jay O’Laughlin (September 2010).

The utilization of woody biomass to produce energy is accompanied by concerns about sustainable forest management and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from burning biomass. The conversion, or potential conversion, of land from native forest to biofuel crops has led to reconsideration of emissions accounting practices. This report critiques and responds to the Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. This report is designed to respond to a call for information by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as it reconsiders how GHG emissions from biomass combustion should be treated under its regulatory
responsibilities. Full report in PDF format.

Some previous posts on this blog on the Manomet study and about biomass are here and here.

But the University of Idaho Policy Analysis Group has developed a variety of interesting papers on other topics.
Check out their other studies here and here.


  1. O’Laughlin’s paper “Accounting for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Wood Bioenergy” does a good job of pointing out the shortcomings of the logic used in study by the Manomet Center that claims until trees regrow and recapture carbon from the atmosphere, coal is a better choise than wood for producing electricity. I am sure certain groups will continue to tout the Manomet Study since it falls in line with what they wish to believe. They’ll probably discount O’Laughlin’s paper since he is a forester and has ties with the forest products industry.

  2. The authors of the Manomet Report have responded to O’Laughlin’s critique here: They say “O’Laughlin’s comments do not reflect a firm understanding of the Manomet methodology and this leads to numerous errors in his characterization of the Manomet approach and his interpretation of the results.”

    Switching from stand-scale to landscape-scale carbon analysis is not appropriate because it results in double-counting on acres that are not harvested and it fails to account for the “opportunity cost” of logging. The carbon effects of biomass extraction after harvest and during the period of regrowth must be compared to a baseline unlogged scenario in which the forest continues to grow. The spatial scale becomes irrelevant when the baseline is properly factored into the analysis.

  3. Such analyses never account for the worst-case scenarios of catastrophic wildfire in comparisons. Compare the total emissions lost into the atmosphere through western wildfires in said “unlogged scenarios” versus site-specific, biomass thinning projects. Eastern biomass projects are probably substantially different from western forest health projects. Methinks some people are cherry-picking data and conclusions without looking at “the big picture”. I tend to think that biomass opponents might only be shooting against projects solely seeking biomass extraction on private lands. Government projects always have other needs, purposes and benefits, with biomass as a nice side effect.

    Assuming that 30 million acres will be immediately clearcut for biomass simply isn’t being truthful. Scare tactics rarely work when the public is educated on the wider related issues. Forest stocking levels should match the annual rainfall. It’s a simple concept, folks.

    • apply the analysis to “worst case scenario catastrophic wildfire” is a form of cherry picking. Not all fires are stand replacing so the analysis must capture the full range of fire effects in real-world proportions.

      Also, assuming that fuel reduction logging will prevent wildfire is another form of cherry picking. Stand replacing fire will happen in spite of our efforts to prevent it.

      The reason that logging usually comes out looking ineffective in saving carbon in these analyses is that the cumulative effects of logging PLUS fire, almost always emits more carbon than the effects of fire alone.

      • Due to Let-Burn fires burning for weeks and months, in heavy fuels, fire intensities and impacts are far beyond what you might call “natural fire”. More cherry picking, Doug. Is it a coincidence that fires of the 60’s and 70’s burned fewer acres? Nope! Fire ran into cutting units and clearcuts, as well as salvaged wildfires.

        Fires that burn in fuel treatment areas always burn with less intensity. Nowhere did I say it would prevent wildfires. Yep, stand-replacing fires will happen in untreated areas, like Roadless Areas. Crown fires often drop down to the ground when they run into thinned stands.

        What about the cumulative effects of firestorms, when it takes DECADES to get forests re-established? My Yosemite example clearly shows that forests won’t be returning soon, since seed sources for the pines are far away from the interior of the twice burned old growth stand. When soils are cooked, the new stand cannot re-sequester the same amount of carbon, and will never mitigate the GHG’s produced from the two catastrophic wildfires in the last 20 years. Remember, this Yosemite stand was untouched since the Indians were rounded up and removed.

        The analyses also fail to take into account the cumulative effects associated with higher intensity Let-Burn fires, which can result in 50-300 tons of GHG’s per acre. That is a LOT of GHG’s!!! The GHG’s from the northern California wildfires of 2007 resulted in the same GHG’s as 3 million cars running for an entire year. The thick, choking smoke from those fires drifted all the way to Yellowstone and heavily impacted citizens in most of northern California.

        Of course, all this is site specific, and wetter forests don’t have as much of a problem. However, with “climate change” these forests will experience more intense wildfires as the ample fuels dry out and burn. (See Biscuit Fire!) Just because catastrophic wildfires are “natural” in some areas, that doesn’t mean we should welcome them in ALL areas. Man once again lives in the woods, and that surely isn’t going to change anytime soon. It’s eco-chic to blame residents for living on their own forest lands.

        Luckily, the “Fire Gods” mindsets are changing and Let-Burn seems on its way out, now. Hooray for common sense!

  4. What I understand is that the analysis depends on the framing of the question, with Massachusetts management questions potentially being very different from the Interior West. Others are welcome to explore these differences in greater depth and submit a post. I’ll put some more energy in this when roadless quiets down again.

    • There may be differences between the east and interior west based on fire return interval, etc., but the Manomet Report still provides a universal framework for evaluating the carbon effects biomass projects. It’s not like O’Laughlin is right and Manomet is wrong because we’re in the interior west.

  5. Their real target is to not allow biomass operations to get subsidies based on carbon neutrality or carbon negativity. We have seen where the State of Massachusetts has done clearcuts in the name of biomass and “wildlife enhancement”. While I am sure that those lands would grow back quickly, I’m not in favor of clearcutting, except as a last resort to re-establish a natural, vigorous and resilient forest. I’m surprised that such projects could fly in that liberal state.

    Please don’t punish us here in the West because of your mistakes in the East. Ditto for NREPA, which would also ban beneficial biomass thinning in parts of the Rockies.

    Why not make individual projects have to qualify for biomass subsidies, based on guidelines for beneficial projects that improve fire safety, reduce forest GHG emissions and improvemnts to wildlife habitat? If a biomass project doesn’t meet those guidelines, they don’t get the subsidy bump. Makes sense to me!

    • This is something I can really support “Why not make individual projects have to qualify for biomass subsidies, based on guidelines for beneficial projects that improve fire safety, reduce forest GHG emissions and improvemnts to wildlife habitat? If a biomass project doesn’t meet those guidelines, they don’t get the subsidy bump. Makes sense to me!”

      As currently implemented, biomass subsidies go to support removal of slash from industrial clearcutting here in Oregon but rarely get used to support sound forest restoration projects.

      • Is their any other form of clearcutting that isn’t “industrial”? There are zero subsidies for biomass, here in California. House-sized slash piles, from well-designed non-industrial thinnings are burned on the landing here.

        Clearcutting does produce mountains of slash, and with diesel prices so high, maybe subsidies have some merit? Would you rather they burned that private logging slash on the landings, instead of generating power, with less emissions?

        I rather doubt that Region 6 is doing much in the way of clearcutting, anymore. Do you think that eastern Oregon Forests should subsidize biomass operations in thinning projects? The biomass and understory trees are exactly what is being targeted for removal on those Forests.

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