Rocky Barker: Burning coal is not the same as burning forests

March 10, 2014 

Gov. Butch Otter has pushed for a new energy future that includes increasing efficiency and promoting alternative energy, natural gas and nuclear power. But in December, John Chatburn, his interim administrator of the Office of Energy Resources, made clear Otter’s support for Idaho utilities’ coal plants in Wyoming, Montana and Nevada.

Chatburn wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency commenting on its proposed regulations on electric power plants aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

He was not challenging the role of CO2 in climate change, which Otter has acknowledged since early in his term. He was challenging the federal agency’s approach.

“EPA’s concern about air quality issues occurring from electricity generation pales in comparison to the air quality issues generated in Idaho from wildfires,” Chatburn wrote. “In 2012 alone, wildfires in Idaho sent more than 12 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is significantly more than the approximately 3 million tons from fuel combustion and industrial processes. ... The failure of the federal government to appropriately manage its land and the resulting carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from wildfires on federally managed land trivializes EPA’s attempt to manage the carbon footprint from electricity generating plans.”

Is his comparison valid? I was skeptical, so, at Chatburn’s suggestion, I called University of Idaho forest economics professor Jay O’Laughlin. He served Otter as chairman of the forestry and biomass task force for the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance, which drafted the 2012 state energy plan. He also serves on the alliance’s carbon issues task force.

Like Chatburn, O’Laughlin has been critical of federal forest policies and generally supports Chatburn’s numbers on carbon emissions from fires. He parts ways, however, on Chatburn’s comparison between wood-burning — which is a part of the natural carbon cycle — and burning fossil fuels, which unlocks carbon stored away for millions of years.

Large forest fires are due both to increased fuels — which partially can be attributed to forest management practices — and the warming climate, which has made the fire seasons longer and hotter. Management can affect only the fuel part of the equation, O’Laughlin said.

Chatburn said he wants EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to demand Congress act to stop federal mismanagement of forests, which would show she’s serious about carbon reduction.

O’Laughlin wants to see a completely different act. He wants McCarthy to exempt wood-burning electric generation — like the plants Clearwater Paper operates in Lewiston — from the same rules it uses to regulate fossil fuel plants like out-of-state coal plants.

“Wood biofuel is a great opportunity for Idaho and the nation,” O’Laughlin said. “It substitutes a renewable resource for nonrenewable resources that are not part of the carbon cycle.”

Chatburn’s letter follows the current Republican doctrine against EPA regulations, which includes a bill that passed the House Wednesday to stop the regulatory rule-making he opposes.

Chatburn can make a case on economic grounds that coal remains cheaper even than natural gas. But falsely equating coal and wood undercuts his argument.

O’Laughlin would like both Chatburn and McCarthy to support projects like the University of Idaho’s research into creating liquid jet fuel from trees killed by beetles and fire. The Department of Agriculture has invested $80 million in liquid biofuel research that could help reduce the need to burn fossil fuels, provide Idaho jobs and create a huge new market for the state’s forest and farm products.

But the impetus for such a bold transition won’t come unless the EPA or Congress address carbon emissions and force government and industry to find cleaner fuels.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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