Adventures with the Biochar People

The State of Colorado convened an interesting meeting to discuss biochar. For those of you unfamiliar with it, here’s the Wikipedia article and here is another general and historic description of its use.

The group included a variety of scientists, from the Forest Service, ARS, and CSU; and a variety of people with interests in development of biochar products and markets. There’s a natural connection in Colorado between the ever-present bug killed trees, and restoring the soils of abandoned mines. Not only that, biochar may be valuable for agricultural soils in Colorado. What was interesting to me was how much this meeting was not the usual suspects talking about our usual stuff. The connection to agriculture was strong- definitely an “all lands” approach. We had people talk about international aspects of food security, and US soil loss; we had people who were starting businesses to use different kinds of waste; we had people interested in renewable energy. The Front Range of Colorado is a hotbed of interest in renewable energy- we have DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, the Colorado School of Mines, the University of Colorado and Colorado State.

Someone even asked “what kind of competition is there for feedstock from dead pine trees?”. That’s how novel our issues are to these folks. The great thing about this dialogue is that the technology is at such an early stage that its development can be guided by environmental concerns. You don’t like big plants because you are afraid that the FS will be pressured to cut extra trees? Well, we can have small mobile equipment that can cluster when large amounts of dead trees are available, and then migrate somewhere else.

There appear to be extra dead trees sitting around from fuel and hazard tree treatments. No one is arguing (at least that I have heard) that they all must be burnt in place for environmental reasons. Abandoned mines and agricultural soils are previously impacted and currently managed by humans, so they are not subject to the same kinds of concerns that people might have for previously unimpacted soils of native forests.

It’s pretty obvious to Coloradans that using some of our dead lodgepole would be a good idea; renewable energy is a good idea; and sequestering carbon and helping soil is a good idea. The State level is a handy scale to organize, as there is social and political coherence- and groups of people who are used to working with each other on a variety of issues. It was invigorating to see a group of people excited about the opportunities to do good and make a living, and for us all to talk about what we can contribute to this goal.

1 thought on “Adventures with the Biochar People”

  1. Statement: “There appear to be extra dead trees sitting around from fuel and hazard tree treatments. No one is arguing (at least that I have heard) that they all must be burnt in place for environmental reasons.”

    Response: Burnt in place? Indeed, not for “environmental reasons”.( And please, do the carbon math on claims of “renewable energy”.)

    It appears you’ve not heard of the fact that biochar has far more proponents than clear science-based evidence for meaningful applications in restoration of soil. Biochar doesn’t necessarily have universal applications to all types of soils. You’ve rightly framed the prospect, “…biochar MAY be valuable for agricultural soils in Colorado.”

    Maybe, maybe not.

    This needs to be objectively determined. Biochar appears to work best in sandy soils, but not so well in others dominated by clay or loam. “Soil scientist Bruno Glaser has suggested that it may take 50-100 years for interactions between soil microbes and charcoal to create soils resembling Terra Preta” (Rachel Smolker “Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation: Fact or Fiction?”)

    It may be biochar production is the highest and best use/response to this manmade disaster of beetle-killed forests, but I question the rush to turn beetle-killed trees into a commodity for first come first served entrepreneurs, touting market based “solutions”(sic) for two reasons.

    First, it cannot be regarded as a solution if it creates an economic dependency upon an EFFECT of a problem (anthropogenic climate changes which have enabled the expansion of beetle kill trees) rather than addressing the CAUSE of the problem (anthropogenic climate changes allowing the expansion of population distribution of beetles).

    Second, this biochar approach inherently creates a disincentive to deal with the cause of the problem, and the supposed market based solutions(sic) are often limited by markets themselves. That is, just because there happens to be a resource (beetle-kill trees), and a subsidy for a commodity market, doesn’t mean that the market application represents the highest and best use of the resource.

    In this case, it may well be the sequestered state of non-combusted carbon of the trees, as is, (and for that matter always has been, prior to the invention of markets), represents the highest and best “use”. This is especially the case when applying the carbon math to the pyrolysis required in biochar production and post application emissions. Industrial biochar production may well substantially add to the CO2, NOx, CO, etc. and particulate soot emissions we desperately need to reduce.

    When you pointed out,’Someone even asked “what kind of competition is there for feedstock from dead pine trees?”.’and you responded, “That’s how novel our issues are to these folks.”, my first thought was of the OTHER novel.

    The one which Naomi Kline penned and titled, “Disaster Capitalism”, the concepts of which are not at all novel– the notion there will always be competition for profiteering opportunities in the wake of natural and man-made disasters.

    That such competition arises doesn’t make it right though.


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