Bruce Ritchie: Debate heats up about wisdom of burning wood for energy

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Few if any spring-breakers and beach-goers speeding south on U. S. Highway 231 toward Panama City Beach realize they’re passing one of the largest producers of wood pellets in the United States.

The wood pellet industry says it’s producing a sustainable alternative energy source and cleaner alternative to coal. But an increasing chorus of scientists and environmentalists are questioning those claims.

The issue, like so many involving the environment and industries, is complicated and requires some deeper consideration.

On the one hand, growing trees in rows for fuel, paper or other wood products generally decreases plant and wildlife diversity compared to more natural forests.

That’s not so good for the environment.

On the other hand, keeping the private forest economy going across the South prevents forests from being developed or converted into more intensive farm uses, such as pastures.

That is good for the environment.

In the recent past, various Florida officials including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and former Gov. Charlie Crist touted the biomass energy potential of Florida’s vast forests.

Just south of Interstate 10 in Jackson County, Green Circle Bio Energy Inc. is tucked behind rows of pine trees along U.S. 231.  The only sign of the plant’s presence there since 2008 may be the Green Circle Parkway sign or the steady stream of log trucks going in and out.

Tree logs are stripped of bark and combined along with wood chips or shavings and sawdust and then pulverized into wood dust. The dry dust is compressed into pellets that are 1-1/4 inches long and a quarter-inch wide.

They look more like pet food than something made from trees.

The pellets are shipped in railroad cars to Panama City where they are loaded onto ships and sent to Europe to produce energy that complies with carbon reduction requirements there. Each year 60,000 truckloads of wood yield more than 600,000 tons of wood pellets.

In June, a group of 91 scientists wrote to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency stating that the assumed carbon neutrality of biomass burning is inherently flawed.

And a federal study in 2013 said an increasing biomass-based energy market, which is highly uncertain, could lead to price increases for timber products. Under a high-demand scenario, the study said, increased harvesting could harm biodiversity, soil fertility and water quality.

Environmental groups now are sounding the warning call.

Todd G. Bush, Green Circle’s vice president of marketing and sales, counters that the company calculates the carbon savings for European customers who use those wood pellets provides a reduction of more than 80 percent in carbon emissions compared to burning coal.

“If we’re not sustainable, we can’t sell any of this in Europe,” Bush said. “They require us to meet very stringent sustainability requirements.”

And he says the volume of trees converted into pellets is less than the volume grown each year from the forests where the company gets its wood.

By purchasing sawmill residues and small trees removed during forest thinning operations, he says Green Circle can help reduce the cost of other wood products while encouraging landowners to maintain their forests.

I say the issue requires continued media coverage along with scientific research, dialogue and unemotional debate.

Our forests are too important — to our environment, our economy and our way of life — to allow otherwise.

Bruce Ritchie is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com.