Biofuels: Leaving the lifecycle of Washington’s forests unchanged

slash pile
Some of the logging 'slash' and other wood residues left after timber harvests could be converted into fuel for aviation. Photo: DNR.

Not all biofuels are created equal, especially when it comes to their ‘green’ credentials, a recent study found. Unlike the biofuel projects DNR proposes for slash and residue from routine timber harvests and forest health thinnings, sources that require significant changes in land use might be less green than conventional fossil fuels.

The study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) looked at the complete carbon footprint of 14 biofuels that could be used for diesel or jet fuel. The study examined the full life cycle of creating and using those biofuels. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Science and Technology, the authors concluded that where tropical rain forests are permanently cleared to plant energy crops, the lifecycle emissions are unacceptably large. Meanwhile, using forest biomass without land-use change can reduce emissions. It sounds like a working forest managed to sustainable harvest targets would fit the bill.

That’s exactly the approach taken by DNR’s Forest Biomass Initiative, which is developing a demonstration program to generate aviation biofuel from wood waste and mill residue. DNR hopes to form partnerships to develop and implement the project using a combination of private funds and existing grant sources.

“The MIT study is just the kind of critical research and review we need to ensure that biomass is sustainable and protects the ecological health of the forest,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark upon reviewing the study. “It indicated that the kinds of forest biomass opportunities we have here, in Washington, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

As part of DNR’s Forest Biomass Initiative, aviation biofuel would be the highest and best use for residual forest biomass, as well as a unique opportunity to help efficient technologies get to the marketplace.

Forest biomass is envisioned as a sustainable energy source that can play a meaningful role in Washington’s renewable energy sector. Using forest biomass, such as logging slash or forest health treatment thinnings, doesn’t require changing the current uses of the state’s working forests. It also would help maintain working forests as lands providing jobs, habitat, clean water and other benefits to the public.

Read an abstract of the study: “Quantifying Variability in Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Inventories of Alternative Middle Distillate Transportation Fuels.

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