Saturday, March 17, 2007

Driving Forests to Death

"We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol, using everything from wood chips to grasses to agricultural waste." –President Bush

Perhaps the most pernicious “solution” to global warming is the push to convert much of our dependence on fossil fuels to a dependence upon biofuels. Biofuels, of course, are derived from contemporary living plants, mostly farmed—or wild. Fossil fuels are derived from plants that have been dead since the Carboniferous Period. The difference in terms of global warming is that burning fossil fuels releases carbon stored underground and forgotten for 300 million years, adding to the net CO2 currently in the atmosphere. Biofuels are supposed to be “carbon neutral,” as they release through combustion no more carbon than they absorbed during their lifetime.

While biofuels have been most commonly derived from food crops (biodiesel from vegetable oils, and ethanol from sugar beets, sugarcane or, increasingly, corn), there is an increased push to produce “cellulosic ethanol,” or alcohol from plants whose energy is locked up in more difficult-to-convert cellulose, i.e., trees. While the timber and paper industries, power companies and others use wood waste for energy, it is generally burned directly in cogeneration facilities for on-site energy generation. To make ethanol from wood chips you have to break down cellulose into the sugar glucose, and then you can let microorganisms ferment it. This is neither easy nor proven technology.

Nevertheless, responding to the president’s call are the good people at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Western Biomass Energy, who are constructing the first cellulosic ethanol plant in the US in Upton, South Dakota, soon to followed by another such plant in Soperton, Georgia, where is it is being hailed as "another huge page in the evolution of the pine tree." (Link). The South Dakota plant will initially produce a million gallons of fuel a year, with a potential of 20 million. Where will the cellulose feedstock for this plant come from? Plant crews would remove slash and residue after logging operations in the Black Hills and surrounding national, state and private forests, making “foresters happy with the prospect of a clean forest,” with a reduced fire hazard (i.e., nothing to burn).See article here.

In addition to the desire to profit from the inevitable switch from dwindling fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, timber companies and forest managers are also able to repackage the old chestnut that logging can save the planet from global warming, as exemplified here by Patrick Moore, former Greenpeacer turned eco-quisling: “Although old trees contain large amounts of carbon, their rate of absorption has slowed to a near halt. A young tree, although it contains little fixed carbon, pulls CO2 from the atmosphere at a much faster rate. While it is true that cutting down an old tree results in a net release of carbon, new trees growing in their place can more than make up the difference.” (See article here).

Predictable PR for the trees-to-fuel initiative can then run on several complimentary lines:
• Domestic forest resources reduces our dependence on expensive and dwindling fossil fuel imports.
• Conversion of wood products to ethanol is a carbon neutral alternative to fossil fuel contributions to climate change.
• Removal of over-mature forests and their replacement with young, vigorous stands of carbon-sucking reprod will draw down more CO2 from the atmosphere, further reducing global warming.
• Stripped of “waste” biomass, forests will be void of ladder fuels, slash, sticks, trees, plump animals and other flammable objects, thus making them fireproof.

American culture values the automobile over pretty much anything else, and it may be no exaggeration to suggest that the US is capable of converting every available acre of land possible into some kind of fuel source before the whole sick ballgame is over for good. Call it what you will: Woodchips For Winnebagos, Forests For Fords, Trees For Humvees (your more clever slogans?), it’s a bad idea whose time has come.



Codesuidae said...

Hey man, you should relax. I know just the thing, let's go for a drive!


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