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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow A loud chorus on biomass

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A loud chorus on biomass


If you think Oregon’s congressional delegation is ignorant of the great sprawling lands that lie east of the Cascades, we offer a single word to refute the theory:

Biomass.

Logging slash, to use the colloquial term.

For decades the accepted method of dealing with this debris was to pile it out in the woods and then burn it.

This produces a little heat and a lot of smoke, neither of which has any value.

Besides which, the smoke pollutes the air and contains that notorious greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

(Smokestack scrubbers — and just plain smokestacks — being a rare sight in the forest.)

But in recent years we’ve come to realize that those piles of limbs and needles are indeed worth something.

Most notably, slash can be burned to generate electricity.

But convincing the federal government, which manages most of the eastside forests that have a surfeit of slash, that nurturing the budding biomass industry benefits both the economy and the environment, has thus far proved a frequently frustrating task for proponents.

Fortunately, they have allies in Washington, D.C.

A majority of Oregon’s representatives in Congress have joined the campaign to make the biomass industry a priority in the capital.

As expected, considering that much of Oregon’s forest biomass supply is east of the Cascades, the list includes the lone eastside member of the delegation (and the only Republican): Rep. Greg Walden.

But Walden was also joined by four of his five Democratic colleagues from Western Oregon in signing a letter mailed last week to Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The five Oregon congressmen, along with 27 other representatives, urge Jackson to make sure that her agency’s pending rule regarding greenhouse gas emissions acknowledges that burning forest biomass is a renewable source of energy, in the same category as wind or solar power.

What prompted the letter is the draft version of the EPA rule (the final version is supposed to be released Jan. 2), which in essence treats biomass as a fossil fuel, basically equivalent to coal or natural gas.

If that definition stands, the biomass industry could stagnate, either because projects won’t qualify for tax breaks and other incentives, or because the EPA rules will impede progress.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden is aboard the biomass bandwagon, too. Wyden called the proposed EPA rule “bad energy policy” and “bad science.”

Wyden was even more succinct, though — he also branded the rule “dumb.”

We agree with the senator.

The environmental benefits of producing electricity by burning slash rather than coal are significant.

For instance, burning woody debris releases much less sulfur, mercury and nitrogen oxides than burning coal does.

And, of course, wood, unlike coal, grows back.

From a more provincial viewpoint, Baker County and the rest of Central and Eastern Oregon have quite a lot to gain should the EPA and other federal agencies encourage, rather than stifle, the fledgling biomass industry.

We have jobs to gain, for one thing. Somebody needs to saw the trees and pile the brush and truck the biomass to the power plant.

Transforming slash from trash to cash crop also makes it financially practical to thin sickly, overcrowded forests — public as well as private.

Healthy forests grow faster, which means they grab more carbon from the atmosphere.

Healthy forests also are less likely to burn in a wildfire — and wildfires, in common with slash burns, aren’t equipped with pollution controls.

Biomass is no miracle panacea, however.

According to studies, in the short-term, burning biomass to produce power can create more greenhouse gases than burning coal. Yet even skeptics agree that deriving more of our electricity from biomass, including slash, will be necessary to reduce the harmful effects of greenhouse gases and, ultimately, to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.

Now we just need to convince the federal government. We’re glad that a host of powerful voices — including some echoing all the way across the Cascades — is helping to convey the message.

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