NEPA, Climate Change, and Science-Denial

In 2009, The Forest Service issued guidance for “Climate Change Considerations in Project Level NEPA Analysis”. The document states that “As with any environmental impact, GHG emissions and carbon cycling should be considered in proportion to the nature and scope of the Federal action in question and its potential to either affect emissions or be affected by climate change impacts.”

This week the State Department issued the final environmental impact statement for the controversial Keystone tar sands oil pipeline project. According to Shawn Lawrence Otto of the Huffington Post The environmental impact statement doesn’t mention the words “climate change.” This despite the fact that the project taps North America’ biggest pool of carbon.

I’m looking forward to reading Otto’s new book “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. A gripping analysis of America’s anti-science crisis.” It ought to be more interesting than the Keystone EIS and might help me understand why that document never mentions climate change.

12 thoughts on “NEPA, Climate Change, and Science-Denial”

  1. The Huffington Post’s accusation that the Keystone tar sands pipeline project doesn’t mention the words “climate change” is as wrong as it is provocative. The EIS does mention ‘climate change’ (see page. 3.12-14).

    The EIS also states the greehouse gas emissions associated with the pipeline, both direct construction (at p. 3.12-19) and operations (3.12-20) emissions.

    The EIS’s Executive Summary acknowledges that “throughout its life cycle, oil sands crude is, on average, more greenhouse gas intensive than the crude oil it would replace in the U.S.”

  2. Indeed. That might cause me to regard his book with a more skeptical eye than I would have had you not pointed this out. A good example of why it’s almost always better to “go to the source.”

  3. Forest Service NEPA documents are starting to address climate change, but the staff who write these analyses need to get up to speed on the science. More often than not they try to justify logging based on outdated misconceptions about carbon and forests, such as:
    * young forests store carbon better than old forests,
    * wood products store carbon better than forests, and
    *logging can help avoid carbon emissions related to fire. None of these stand up to scientific scrutiny.

    Or, if they admit that logging accelerates the transfer of carbon from the forest to the atmosphere, then they dismiss it by saying it’s not enough to “measurably” change the climate, which fails to recognize the basic concept of cumulative effects and the geographically dispersed nature of the global carbon cycle.

    Here is a slide show clarifying many misconceptions about forests, logging, and carbon:

    Here is a more detailed foot-noted report on forests, carbon and climate change:

  4. Well, then all new Wilderness designation must also analyze ALL the GHG contributions of potential catastrophic wildfires, within Wilderness boundaries, as well. While we are at it, let’s extend those guidelines to all preservationist bills, proposals and policies, as well. You cannot cherry-pick situations where you want to apply the guidelines. Managed forests sequester more GHG’s than landscapes allowed to…. errr…. DESIRED to burn.

    • Fotoware, You’re not getting it. Fire is a natural process that merely places a cap on the maximum amount of carbon that a landscape can store. Wilderness designation should not change this natural process. Forest protection can however eliminate the threat of logging which helps avoid an additional cumulative source of GHG emissions.

      One cannot reliably increase forest carbon storage by logging because the carbon emissions from logging+fire are worse than the carbon emissions of fire alone.

      Here are some studies to bring you up to speed.

      Mitchell, Harmon, O’Connell. 2009. Forest fuel reduction alters fire severity and long-term carbon storage in three Pacific Northwest ecosystems. Ecological Applications. 19(3), 2009, pp. 643–655

      Reinhardt, Elizabeth, and Lisa Holsinger 2010. Effects of fuel treatments on carbon-disturbance relationships in forests of the northern Rocky Mountains. Forest Ecology and Management 259 (2010) 1427–1435.

      Jim Cathcart, Alan A. Ager, Andrew McMahan, Mark Finney, and Brian Watt 2009. Carbon Benefits from Fuel Treatments. USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-61. 2010.

      Law, B. & M.E. Harmon 2011. Forest sector carbon management, measurement and verification, and discussion of policy related to mitigation and adaptation of forests to climate change. Carbon Management 2011 2(1).

      • I “get it” better than most, as my career specialty was in salvage logging. I’ve seen the devastation and accelerated mortality associated with catastrophic wildfires and bark beetles. I’ve seen massive mudslides in post-fire landscapes. I’ve seen blooms of bark beetles come off unsalvaged mortality. I’ve seen cherished old growth forests turned into a moonscape in a mere 20 years. All that carbon and GHG’s went DIRECTLY to our atmosphere. Vaporized! The idea that the carbon contained within forests is “insignificant”, because it is above-ground carbon is flawed. It is easy to be against fossil fuel carbon but, the GHG’s from non-characteristic intense wildfire cannot be preserved away. When such fires burn, the land CANNOT re-sequester the carbon that was released, due to many facts ignored by the anti-management crowd. It is simply unsustainable to harbor these vast stretches of continuous fuels, far, far beyond pre-European conditions. When you bring in the inescapable modern human element, including accidents and arson, you cannot assume that such fuels buildups will burn in an “eco-friendly” way. It’s easy to select a piece of ground that will support the idea of doing nothing. I also believe that all those external sources of GHG’s included in studies should, indeed, also be applied to “preservationism”, and their pet policies.

        • Fotoware: You obviously have an strong aversion to carbon emissions from fire, but you don’t say what you intend to do about it. I assume you want to try to log to control fire and thus reduce carbon emissions. The logic might seem appealing but just does not hold up under scientific scrutiny. Here’s why:

          One cannot predict where or when wildfire will occur, so in order to influence fire behavior treatments must be widespread and ongoing.

          Many sites that are logged with an intent to control fire, will NOT burn during the period that fuel treatments are effective. In fact, in most forest systems, many times more acres will be logged than experience wildfire.

          And don’t assume that fuel treatments are 100% effective. In reality, there will still be fire related emissions. Logging will change fire emissions only to a limited degree.

          You might dislike carbon emissions from fire more than carbon emissions from logging, but they are indistinguishable from the standpoint of the atmosphere and climate. We have to account for carbon emissions form both logging AND fire, not one or the other.

          Bottom line: All those acres of “unnecessary” fuel treatments emit more carbon than the emissions form fire, hence the science clearly shows that “carbon emissions from logging+fire are worse than the carbon emissions of fire alone.”

          This is all explained in the papers cited above.

          • “One cannot predict where or when wildfire will occur, so in order to influence fire behavior treatments must be widespread and ongoing.”

            It is quite easy to predict where fires are likely to occur. Where fuels are built up and where fires have started/burned in the past. We’ve seen many examples of where thinning projects have reduced fire intensities and knocked crown fires down to the ground. So, you advocate doing nothing EVERYWHERE?!?

            “Many sites that are logged with an intent to control fire, will NOT burn during the period that fuel treatments are effective. In fact, in most forest systems, many times more acres will be logged than experience wildfire.”

            No one is saying that we need to use the same treatments EVERYWHERE! Yes, “maintenance” is an important part of forest stewardship. Indians knew that EXTREMELY well! In many cases, prescribed fire can accomplish the “maintenance” after the initial restoration and fuels work is done. In fact most of those lands you cite as not needing fuels treatments are already protected in Wilderness and other areas. In the millions of acres where lodgepoles have encroached upon ponderosa pines have created the LPI (Lodgepole-Ponderosa Interface), where catastrophic wildfire threatens to do MUCH more damage than a simple lodgepole thinning project.

            “You might dislike carbon emissions from fire more than carbon emissions from logging, but they are indistinguishable from the standpoint of the atmosphere and climate. We have to account for carbon emissions form both logging AND fire, not one or the other.”

            The comparison must be between your “preserved” landscape, including the massive overstocking, mortality, fuels problems and wildfire potentials versus a thinned forest, with healthy, vigorous and resilient forests, supporting endangered species. When your at-risk landscapes burn, there is no comparison as to which forest is more healthy, “natural”, desirable and supporting of endangered species.

            When up to 300 tons of carbon and GHG’s per acre go up in smoke, and even more potent GHG’s coming from the rotting of of a billion dead trees, the amount from logging is miniscule, especially when you can see the plumes of smoke from space!!!!! So, even if we set an extremely conservative amount of GHG’s per acre (not even including the more potent GHG’s from rotting trees) and we multiply 10 tons per acre with 10,000,000 acres burned, you have 100,000,000 TONS of greenhouse gases…. and that, is the proverbial shitload, all in just one year. Are you saying that public land logging results in more than 100,000,000 tons of GHG’s, annually?!?!?!?

  5. “Monster Fires Create Bigger Monsters”

    Yes, Dr. Bonnicksen wrote this nine years ago, and it has certainly been accurate in showing how preservationism continues to feed fire intensity and rate of spread. Nowhere does it say that governmental actions have to result in no emissions released. It’s not a Rule, policy or anything requiring exhaustive studies, either. It is merely a guideline that government must address “Climate Change”. The Forest Service believes that thinning projects have an overall beneficial effect on the land, and its inhabitants. Now, if it were a slash and burn 40+ acre clearcut, I rather doubt such a project would pass muster. We have been doing thinning projects, exclusively, in California for 18 years now, and nobody is saying that cutting trees with an average diameter of 14″ dbh is “unnecessary”. (Except for the radical extremist, Chad Hanson)

  6. Larry H/Foto:

    You might be interested in this information about Mr. Bonnicksen. I also like how you were able to label Dr. Chad Hanson as a “radical extremist” here without getting dinged from Sharon. Bonus points for you Larry!


    Logging Proponent’s Credentials Questioned: An emeritus professor has been highly visible in the push to log on federal land. He has a contract with a timber industry foundation.

    SNIP: “[Bonnicksen is] always introduced as the leading expert on forest recovery, and he’s just not. There’s nothing in his record other than just talking and hand-waving,” said UCLA ecology professor Philip Rundel, one of several academics who issued an open letter to the media this week questioning Bonnicksen’s credentials.


    From the California Chaparral Institute

    Are Leading Fire Ecologists Really Lying?

    SNIP: “According to public documents, Dr. Bonnicksen has been paid by the Forest Foundation to write opinion pieces in newspapers and to give presentations to promote land use policies favored by the logging industry ($57,387 in 2004 and $51,519 in 2005).”

    • So, are we to believe a “chapparal-hugger” over the word of a PHD, who has had his studies peer-reviewed by Agencies like the Forest Service and CalFire?!?!? Many PHD’s get money to back or promote things in the scientific world. How many millions did Al Gore get to make his movie and write his books?!?!

      Even the Sierra Club called Hanson too radical for their tastes, and that is really saying something! Hanson also pushes for the extreme position of leaving hazard trees in place on ALL roads not passable by his Prius (after he traded in his big SUV). Sounds rather extremist to me!! He also wants to end ALL logging on ALL lands, in favor of wildfires and the black-backed woodpecker, a bird not endangered. Sounds extremist to me.

      If it sues like an extremist, and blathers like an extremist and is labeled by his peers as extremist, he’s probably an extremist. Remember, an integral part of being an “eco-counterbalance” is the ability and desire to compromise. Most that are active in eco-litigation refuse to compromise, at the expense of our forests and all its inhabitants (including me).

  7. Here is the best, most balanced position paper on carbon sequestration and fire ecology I could find. While I don’t agree with every detail put forth in this position paper, I do see that site specificity is key to each micro-situation.

    The paper seems to address all our forest issues without that annoying partisan politics so pervasive in other documents. Also, the paper doesn’t seem to be one of those “stand alone” write-ups that ignore other forest issues to ram home preservationist talking points. All too often, preservationist position papers make impossible comparisons while ignoring or discounting likely long term scenarios affecting public safety, natural resources and local ecosystem values.


Leave a Comment