Environmental Lawsuit Threatens Biomass Fuel Supplies

Against the backdrop of California's energy crisis, another drama is unfolding for the state's biomass power plants.

A lawsuit to protect Spotted Owls and Pacific Fishers may decide whether some biomass facilities will continue to provide power to California's energy market.

For the biomass industry, the story began on Dec. 11 when the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, D.C., placed a 90-day logging moratorium on 11 million acres of federal land in Eastern California, thus denying the state's 30 biomass plants a major fuel source.

These plants burn approximately 5 million tons of wood per year, according to California Biomass Energy Alliance Director Bob Judd. Sixty percent of that wood comes from forest-related materials such as bark and sawdust.

“This [moratorium] poses a threat to some of our fuel supply. If we can't get the fuel, we can't produce the electricity,” Judd says, noting that California's biomass plants generate approximately 2 percent of the state's power.

At a time when Judd says biomass plants should be stockpiling wood waste for California's energy-demanding summertime months, many plants are not even able to meet current demands. In fact, one of Northern California's largest biomass facilities, the Redding-based Honey Lake plant, was forced to shut down in January because of the moratorium.

But these consequences for biomass plants were inadvertent, according to U.S. Forest Service Spokesman Matt Mathes. The moratorium was put in-place in response to a lawsuit, filed by the Pasadena, Calif.-based John Muir Project, blaming the decline of two native-Californian species on Forest Service logging practices.

The lawsuit charged that the interim guidelines, under which the Forest Service has been operating for many years, actually expired in 1995. Then, in the absence of any forest management plan, logging practices were allowed to continue unchecked, which destroyed Spotted Owl and Pacific Fisher habitats. For these reasons, the lawsuit called for an injunction on all logging and timber sales until the Forest Service could submit a comprehensive management plan.

In reviewing the lawsuit, the U.S. Justice Department has asked the Forest Service to postpone timber sales until 30 days after the release of the Forest Service's Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment. Dubbed the “Sierra Nevada Framework,” this plan is an environmental impact statement describing the Forest Service's future intentions in the Sierra Nevada Mountain region.

Surprising many of the stakeholders in this issue, the Forest Service released the plan on January 12, much sooner than expected. Consequently, logging and timber sales resumed in mid February.

The plan, which calls for an overall decline in Sierra Nevada timber harvesting, is good for biomass plants, Mathes says. Because it allows for fire-prevention “thinning” of trees near human-populated areas, the plan will mean increased cutting of smaller-diameter trees, which can be used for biomass, he says.

But Honey Lake's fuel manager, Dave Allen, is not pleased. Allen says he is angered by what he sees as the Forest Service's intention to ignore a major problem in Western federally protected forests: fire hazards.

“The forest service has not implemented fire-prevention operations,” Allen says. “The reason we're even talking about doing these ‘thinnings’ is because of a 100-year total fire-suppression policy. This policy has caused unnaturally high levels of biomass fuels, so now when a fire does start, it reaches a magnitude we never used to see.”

Allen contends that efforts to clear highly flammable biomass fuels from the forest floor should extend far beyond the 350,000 tons per year goal of the Sierra Nevada Framework.

“The fact is there are millions and millions of tons that should come off of the forest each year for the next 25 years,” he says.

But the John Muir Project's Hansen vehemently disagrees with Allen's assertions. He says the Sierra Nevada Framework does not go far enough in protecting the forest's fragile ecosystem.

Hansen says that rather than protecting the forest from fires, the Forest Service's thinning efforts actually add to fire risk.

“Because the machines — called fellerbunchers — are so big, they have to remove large trees in order to get to the small trees,” he says. “That reduces a lot of the canopy, thereby increasing fire risk.”

Efforts to remove biomass wood also leaves limbs and broken branches that increase fire risk, Hansen adds.

And, although Hansen admits that the Sierra Nevada Framework is a vast improvement over current management practices, he says the John Muir Project has filed for another injunction to halt logging contracts that already were “in the pipeline,” before the Framework took effect on Feb. 11, 2001.

“Even if the Forest Service planned no new sales,” Hansen says, “these contracts would allow them to continue logging at current levels for the next two years.”

Meanwhile, as biomass plants wait to find out whether forest-related fuel supplies will once again be halted, they also are negotiating long-term contracts with California's large power utilities in the midst of the state's power crisis, Judd says.

This is because California's government has restored power utilities' right to sign long-term contracts with energy providers, in hopes of lowering wholesale energy prices and allowing large utilities to stay afloat.

But with the future of a major biomass fuel source so uncertain, some in the biomass industry wonder whether the industry will survive to fulfill long-term contracts.

If the John Muir Project is successful in its injunction, Allen says, “the plants most dependant on forest biomass would have to shut down.”

Judd says this would be unfortunate for many reasons.

“If this waste didn't come to us, it would simply be burned in the open — causing air pollution — or disposed of in landfills,” he says. “Some say that the biomass power industry is really the state's largest waste management system,” Judd continues. We're a waste management industry that provides landfill diversion and clean air benefits.”

But Hansen contends, “Biomass timber is not waste. It's a critically important habitat.”

As of press time, a final decision on the injunction had not been issued. But if the John Muir Project's injunction request is denied, Hansen says the organization will appeal.

And, as the new U.S. administration still is adjusting to its responsibilities, both sides of this argument agree: The debate about removing biomass from federal land may continue for a long while.