Beetle-kill logging project raises questions about value of dead trees

Dec 6, 2013

The project's industry partner, Cool Planet Energy Systems, has developed technology for producing biofuels that it says is carbon negative.
The project's industry partner, Cool Planet Energy Systems, has developed technology for producing biofuels that it says is carbon negative.
Credit Cool Planet Energy Systems

More than 40 million acres of trees have been killed by bark beetles in the Rocky Mountain West over the last two decades. Those trees are an eyesore, and as we heard in the last story, a source of carbon dioxide. But a new project is trying to find an upside to the epidemic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given researchers at five western universities, including the University of Wyoming, $10 million to see if those dead trees can be converted into gasoline.

The project has been hailed as a win-win-win for the atmosphere, the ecosystem and the economy. But as Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports, skeptics question whether making gasoline is really the best use of the West’s dead timber.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: Demand for biofuels is huge in the U.S., in part because of a 2005 law that mandates the gradual stepping up of renewables in transportation fuels like gasoline. Most of that demand is met by ethanol, from corn, but there are problems with ethanol, in part because it competes with food. Dead forests on the other hand...

KEITH PAUSTIAN: Can we utilize in a responsible way all that dead biomass?

JOYCE: That’s Keith Paustian, the project lead and a professor at Colorado State University. He says if the trees were left to decompose, they would be net carbon-emitters, whereas the conversion process to gasoline actually takes carbon out of the atmosphere -- or at least that’s what the research team is counting on.

PAUSTIAN: From my perspective… the number one reason for looking at biofuels is to reduce greenhouse gases that would otherwise be occurring from fossil fuel use.

JOYCE: They’re hoping to do that using a unique process. They’ll burn the wood in an oxygenless environment, on-site, turning it into gasoline. Then they’ll take the byproduct of the process -- charcoal -- and add it to soils. Charcoal boosts plant productivity, which in turn, pulls carbon out of the atmosphere. Hence, the negative carbon balance. Paustian says removing the trees is also a way to mitigate wildfires.

PAUSTIAN: We desperately need in many areas to get that material out of the woods, because it poses a hazard.

JOYCE: And there are potential economic benefits as well. The timber industry in the West has been declining for decades -- but increased beetle-kill logging could bring jobs back to communities.

This project is just a test -- over the next five years, the researchers will study whether the benefits actually pan out, and whether it’s economically viable. But the technology’s potential isn’t lost on anyone -- including Paustian.

PAUSTIAN: If you look at the broader...really the entire Rockies, from New Mexico all the way up through Canada into Alaska… there’s obviously vast areas where they’re going to be dealing with some of the same kinds of issues.

JOYCE: That kind of talk makes Greg Aplet very nervous. He’s the chief scientist for the Wilderness Society and an advisor to the project.

He’s skeptical that turning beetle kill into gasoline is such a win-win-win. To start, he worries about the scale.

APLET: What people who are skeptical of this enterprise fear most is this giant sucking sound of bioenergy… that we’ll create demand for materials that are far in excess of ability of the ecosystem to sustain.

JOYCE: In other words, that just as we’ve done before, we may log too much. And he says the claim that logging beetle kill will prevent wildfires, or reduce their intensity, just isn’t true.

APLET: We have a hundred years of observing the impacts of mountain pine beetle in the west, and there's precious little evidence that the consequences of beetle attack is enhanced fire hazard.

JOYCE: Several recent studies, including one by NASA, support Aplet’s skepticism. But it’s not just that the trees aren’t a fire hazard -- Aplet says they actually contribute to a healthy forest.

APLET: Once heard some wag say, ‘when a tree dies, its life is only half over.’ The role of a dead tree in an ecosystem continues on well past its death, and even well past the time that it falls over and starts decomposing into the forest floor.

JOYCE: For example, he says, when dead trees fall into streams, they provide important habitat and nutrients for fish.

But Aplet knows that his is the minority view. He says it’s working against centuries of tradition to convince people that dead trees might be more valuable on the forest floor than in their gas tanks. But he’s hopeful that as an advisor to the project, he can get the researchers’ ear.

APLET: The kinds of questions that they are asking suggest to me that they’re open to exploring those areas.

JOYCE: Which leaves open the possibility that in five years, we might find out that doing nothing, is better than doing something.

*See more on their process here.