Carbon Neutrality Moves Forward

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The greater wood products industry has long fought for recognition from the federal government on the carbon neutrality of woody biomass, and it appears the day has finally come.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a policy statement announcing a policy direction that is intended to:

  • provide clear recognition of the benefits of using forest biomass for energy production at stationary sources; and
  • signal the agency’s intent to treat the biogenic CO2 emissions associated with the use of forest biomass for energy by stationary sources as carbon neutral in future regulatory actions and in various programmatic contexts, in accordance with the Executive Orders and Congressional direction described above.

To further entrench this scientifically based thinking in the U.S. government decision-making process, the EPA is moving to develop a formal rule embodying the principles in the announcement. Recent meetings with EPA officials suggest that this rule-making may be time-consuming and we should not expect final action for a couple of years. However, we are encouraged by the signals being sent from the EPA on this critical issue, and we will continue to assist them in forging a final policy that is beneficial to the entire biomass value chain.

This action is just the latest development in years of work by the Hardwood Federation and our allies in the fight to promote the carbon neutrality of biomass. Lumber industry leaders, employees, and Washington representatives have attended hundreds of meetings and placed countless phone calls to members of Congress and their staffs, cabinet members, and administration officials of at least three presidents. If this seems like a lot of work to move the needle slowly and incrementally, it is. But the industry remains committed to this concept of codified biomass carbon neutrality at the federal level because it resides at the very heart of the wood products industry’s sustainability message and it is a principle that is increasingly under attack from anti-forestry activists.

The Hardwood Federation’s ongoing education efforts with policymakers about the environmental benefits of forest products operations emphasize the fact that timber arriving at lumber mills represents one step in a larger “carbon cycling” process. Trees are harvested and efficiently converted into floors, millwork, and cabinets at mills that, once installed in homes and commercial buildings, will store the carbon embedded in that wood product for generations.

Parts of the tree that are not fit for making wood products, like bark, chip, and sawdust, are combusted for energy recovery, typically in the form of heat and power at lumber facilities or sold to pellet producers or other end-users. At the point where forest biomass is combusted for energy, carbon that had been siphoned from the atmosphere and stored in the tree fiber through the duration of its growing years is released into the atmosphere.

But what separates wood products’ processes from industries that rely on fossil-derived materials like oil, gas, or coal is that the thriving, sustainable forests from which raw materials are sourced continue the carbon uptake cycle in a virtual loop. In other words, wood product production does not introduce “new” carbon to the atmosphere as fossil fuel combustion does. That’s why we like to describe it as “carbon cycling.”

Until recently, we had assumed this was a principle that was beyond dispute. However, over the past few years, many opponents of timber harvesting have begun making claims that forest-based biomass is a non-renewable resource. Many outside the wood products industry are unaware of – or refuse to acknowledge – the fact that robust markets for forest products actually promote the health of the nation’s forest resources. The beautiful and long-lived wood products, including flooring produced by the industry, provide critical demand for working forests so that landowners managing those forests can continue to keep those lands as forest lands.

A little-known fact is that most of the forest land in this country is privately owned in parcels that average well under 500 acres. These small private landowner suppliers depend on a return on investment to keep their holdings forested and not convert them to other uses like row crop agriculture or development. Thriving markets for forest products are the primary reason there are more forested acres in this country today than in the 1950s – a period during which the country experienced an unprecedented postwar homebuilding spree.

Unfortunately, bumper sticker messaging around saving trees by not using wood is the narrative that has prevailed among many, and it is a myth we continue to debunk on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch. But we are finally seeing consistent progress toward codified federal government support for our sustainability message. NWFA members have been incredibly active on this issue, and we thank you for your advocacy. This is just one piece, one important piece, of the overall message we all should be delivering…wood products are environmentally friendly and sustainable!

Dana Lee Cole is Executive Director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the U.S. and acts as the industry’s advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at dana.cole@hardwoodfederation.com.

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