Udall beetle bill looks to boost biofuel, biopower solutions

Backers of biofuel and biopower see the millions of lodgepole pine trees killed by the Rocky Mountain bark beetle epidemic as a source of carbon-neutral power. Their efforts to turn the devastation into usable energy may take off if Congress passes a bill floated by Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall late last week.

Photo: Bob Spencer
Photo: Bob Spencer

Co-sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. James Risch of Idaho — whose state also has been hit hard by the rice-sized bugs — the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act would provide tax and other incentives for companies harvesting beetle-killed dead trees for biofuel or biopower.

“[The bill] pays people to use biofuels in productive ways, which is already allowed in the Farm Act, and then those biofuels can be credited under the Clean Air Act, interestingly enough,” Udall said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “The biofuel credit is not being used to the extent it could be right now. That would be an important development for the Forest Service as they encourage potential harvesters who would want to turn that biomass into biofuel.”

Calling the epidemic that has killed millions of acres of lodgepole pines across the state “one of the biggest natural disasters we face in the West,” Udall outlined a bill that doesn’t inject much cash into the equation but instead aims to provide public land managers with better regulatory tools for dealing with the pine beetle fallout.

The bill would authorize creation of “insect emergency areas” that the Forest Service can prioritize for treatment to reduce fuel loads and therefore fire risks; expedite environmental analysis by encouraging use of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act; expand throughout the West the “good neighbor authority” used in Colorado and Utah to treat public lands adjacent to private property and homes; and provide some funding for stewardship contracts to clear out beetle kill.

Foresters and other user groups such as ski resorts trying to cope with the decade-old outbreak have for years complained that rules dictating timber sales have hampered thinning efforts near mountain towns and other tourist attractions, putting key segments of the state’s economy at risk of catastrophic wildfires. Time-consuming environmental analysis requirements and the price per tree for harvesting low-value beetle kill have made widespread thinning difficult, they claim.

But environmentalists don’t want to see longstanding environmental review policies tossed aside so quickly, particularly given the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of thinning efforts deep into forests. While they agree with aggressive thinning and clearing dead trees near communities — the so-called Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) — conservationists say there isn’t much benefit in working too deeply into the national forests.

“My belief has always been that when you put the right policies in place and you make the right policy proposals, the politics follow along appropriately,” Udall said. “There is a public safety concern here, there is an economic concern, there’s also an environmental concern, and they’re all linked together.”

Udall talked about the state’s largest wildfire in 2002, the Hayman blaze, which consumed more than 138,000 acres of national forest near the Front Range. That fire caused erosion that adversely impacted Denver’s drinking water supplies. He also acknowledged the threat to hundreds of miles of power lines crisscrossing federal lands hit hard by beetles.

Biopower advocates have long argued that existing technology widely used in Europe and increasingly in other parts of the United States would allow companies to chip up dead trees no longer suitable for commercial lumber, gasify the chips at high heat and convert the biomass into heat or electricity.

The process is virtually carbon-neutral when factoring in decomposition if the trees are left to rot or wildfire if they’re left to burn. Stewardship contracts are viewed as key in providing long-term feedstock. Udall has sent a letter of support to the Department of Energy for a biomass power plant Vail is seeking a grant to build.

But on Monday Udall talked about converting beetle-kill trees, which are already being turned into pellets for wood stoves in Kremmling, into other forms of biofuel.

“There’s been a lot of conversations among a lot of us about how do you create markets for this potential biofuel,” he said. “You can only make so many fence posts and so many pencils and so many bark-beetle belt buckles.

“And when you put into the mix that much of this timber is not particularly well-suited for middle- or even high-end lumber markets, then there’s a natural inclination to consider whether, with the new technologies we have, could you turn this biomass into biofuels, particularly ethanols. And the Farm Act, the Ag Credit Act and the Clean Air Act all provide opportunities to provide additional incentives to see if this is a real and sustainable operation or economic activity.”

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