January 9, 2008

No incentives for national forest waste-to-biofuels

As a result of some backroom redrafting of the Energy Bill in the House, USDA Forest Service authority to fund proper forest stewardship through the sale of forest thinning slash and waste has been dealt a serious setback - needed bioenergy infrastructure will be ineligible for woody biomass-to-ethanol incentives.

This is a blatant usurpation by a few autocrats of the conscientious efforts and intent by many bipartisan congressional leaders. The sad part is that it will be communities around the forests that are hurt most because proper forest stewardship is long overdue on public lands. This was a prime opportunity to enable the Forest Service to take corrective action to avert bug infestations, forest fires, and real estate development in and near public forests.

Here is a reprint of an article that appeared in the Rapid City Journal.

Energy bill cuts national forest wood waste
By Steve Miller, Rapid City Journal

A last-minute change in the federal energy bill discourages the use of wood chips, tree limbs and other wood waste from national forests in the production of ethanol, according to a forest industry spokesman.
The surprise provision makes no sense, says Aaron Everett, a spokesman for the Black Hills Forest Resource Association.

The energy bill passed by Congress and signed by the president earlier this month requires an increase in the amount of ethanol produced from renewable biomass materials such as grasses and wood waste. The bill requires 21 billion gallons of ethanol to be produced from biomass, including cellulosic materials, by the year 2022. Corn-ethanol production is slated to double, to 15 billion gallons.

All of South Dakota's congressional delegation worked hard to make sure slash piles and other wood waste from national forests would qualify for the definition of renewable biomass in the energy bill, Everett said.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, made sure the definition included national forests when the bill came out of that committee, Everett said.

However, the bill had been changed in the House to exclude national forests before it got to the Senate. Everett said he suspects environmental interests got the provision inserted at the last minute.

"I think it fell victim to groups whose aim is to limit, in any way possible, forest management on public lands," he said.

Everett said the exclusion discourages the use of hundreds of thousands of tons of wood waste just from the Black Hills National Forest.

The provision was discovered too late in the process to change by the time it arrived in the Senate, according to Brendon Plack, a legislative aide to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. Plack said much of the language of the 1,100-page bill apparently was written behind closed doors in final negotiations.

The provision doesn't outright ban using wood waste from national forests to make ethanol, Plack said.

However, it ensures that ethanol made from such national forest biomass will not count toward the increased renewable fuels standard target in the energy bill, he said.

That means ethanol made from national forest biomass will not qualify for government incentives, Everett said.

"It represents a policy disincentive," he said.

Companies making ethanol from wood products will have more incentive to use wood waste from private land, Everett said.

There is one exception in the definition: biomass from federal forests in the immediate vicinity of private homes qualifies for the renewable fuels standard.

"Essentially, for the purposes of energy incentives for the federal government, forest biomass on national forest lands might as well not exist," Everett said.

(The definition in the bill, however, does appear to list wood waste from tribal lands as qualifying for the renewable biomass definition.)

In contrast to the energy bill, Plack said, the farm bill does count wood waste from federal forests as renewable biomass.

"That fits in well with Sen. Thune's biomass crop transition program, which would pay individuals who transport that biomass to bio refineries on a per-ton basis," Plack said.

The farm bill has passed both the House and Senate, and a conference committee will meet next month to iron out differences between the two bills.

Everett said an important existing incentive for renewable energy was stripped from the bill when the Senate dumped a tax package. Some Republicans objected to taxes on oil companies in the package. But it also included reauthorization of a production tax credit of a 1-1/2 cents per kilowatt hour for renewable electricity production, Everett said. The incentive promoted practices such as burning wood chips to make electricity, he said.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or steve.miller@rapidcityjournal.com

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