When state utility regulators held a workshop last month about increasing the use of forest biomass for power, one topic did not make it into the discussion: the emissions produced from burning small trees, branches and treetops hauled from Arizona's forests.
Compared to coal, burning biomass emits lower amounts of key pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, but it generally equals or surpasses coal in the amount of carbon dioxide it emits per unit of heat.
Bioenergy supporters, and many government agencies, have deemed the energy source carbon neutral, because trees grow back to replace ones that were cut, reabsorbing the carbon emitted by burning the woody matter.
But many forest researchers say that description ignores the time it takes for trees that are cut down to be replaced by new ones, or the possibility that replacements won’t grow back at all. In the meantime, the capacity for a logged, or thinned, forest to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is reduced, which means it can take decades to centuries for new trees to reabsorb the amount of carbon emitted in the burning of their predecessors.
“You need time to pay the debt back, it doesn't get paid back instantly,” said Mark Harmon, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University who works on the movement of carbon in and out of forests.
It’s that longer payback period that can make the fuel source problematic for climate change targets that call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the shorter term.
In Arizona, the calculation is even more complex because biomass power is being considered not only as an energy source but as an integral part of much-needed restoration of the state’s ponderosa pine forests.
Supporters see bioenergy as a vehicle to speed up forest thinning work on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, by creating a valuable use for forest residues, thus making the work more attractive to logging companies.
But as regulators, utilities and land managers consider throwing their support behind forest-based biomass energy linked to 4FRI, it begs the question: in a project meant, in part, to thin trees in order to make the ponderosa forest more resilient to climate change, does it make sense to promote energy that adds more planet-warming gases to the atmosphere?
At least three environmental groups involved in 4FRI are split.
The Sierra Club would rather see the forest slash used to make wood products that would sequester, or store, carbon rather than having it be burned, the nonprofit’s Arizona director Sandy Bahr wrote in an email.
She questioned what kinds of pollution controls would be installed on any new biomass plant and the potential for a net increase in carbon emissions.
In the eyes of the Grand Canyon Trust, the small size of any new biomass plant and the pressing need to clear built-up fuels from the region’s forest outweigh potential emissions concerns, said Travis Bruner, the Trust’s Arizona forests program director. The Center for Biological Diversity’s Todd Schulke said he too would be “cautiously positive” about a biomass plant that was appropriately sized to support 4FRI's ponderosa pine thinning.
Outside of biomass energy, there simply isn’t another alternative use for those forest residues that is economic and scalable, Bruner said.
“Part of our calculous is informed by that, part of it is informed by the carbon released by pile burning or wildfire if we don’t do (forest thinning),” he said. “Here, (biomass power) is an ancillary to forest restoration.”
Arizona already has one utility-scale biomass power plant in Snowflake, on the east side of the state.
The facility uses up woody biomass from 15,000 to 20,000 acres per year, Novo BioPower CEO Brad Worsley said. In addition to the fact that trees grow back, Worsley said his fuel source is renewable and carbon-neutral because it’s using carbon, stored in the tree, that is already part of the carbon cycle and would otherwise burn up or decay in tens or hundreds of years. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are reintroducing carbon that has been buried for millions of years.
Worsley said that what he burns in his power plant is the bark, limbs and small trees that can’t be made into many other wood products that would sequester carbon, as Bahr had mentioned.
While his plant does burn forest material and produces emissions, it also helps make the forest less prone to catastrophic wildfires that would burn through, and emit, much more, Worsley said.
“We are protecting the large, healthy, fire-resistant carbon receptors,” he said, referring to the types of trees that loggers are generally required to leave in the forest.
Burning woody biomass in a wildfire or a pile burn also produces more particulate matter and carbon monoxide than burning it in a biomass plant.
The Center for Biological Diversity isn’t unconcerned with carbon emissions from biomass energy, but is also considering other factors, Schulke said.
“If we do restoration properly and burn in a controlled environment, it still creates carbon but it’s a lot cleaner and contributes positively to our ability to do restoration,” he said. “It’s kind of a balancing act that we’re doing.”
A brief from Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources describes biomass as carbon neutral because while carbon dioxide is being emitted from burning biomass, the gas is “simultaneously being reabsorbed by growing forests.”
But Harmon said that math doesn’t work out if one thinks about a single forest. In a simplistic scenario, if half of the trees in a forest are harvested and burned for biomass energy and it takes two years for the forest to grow back to its original capacity to sequester carbon, its per-year sequestration average will be less than a forest where all of the trees remained for all three years. Even though the trees grew back, there was a period when carbon sequestration was reduced, bringing down the average.
And in thinning projects where the idea is to reduce tree density in the long run, total carbon storage will permanently be lower than pre-thinning, also challenging the notion of carbon neutrality, he said.
Studies Harmon has done of forests burned by wildfires also show that even high-severity fires burn only about 30 percent of the biomass in a forest, releasing only that amount of stored carbon back into the atmosphere. That means that the benefits of forest thinning as a means to prevent the possibility of even more carbon release during wildfires is often overstated, Harmon said.
Sami Yassa, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has written critically about assumptions of bioenergy’s carbon neutrality as well.
In a modeling study, Yassa found that the biomass was, in many cases, comparable to coal in total, life-cycle carbon emissions for at least the first three to four decades before replacement forests grew back. Letting that forest material break down naturally instead of burning it would keep carbon stored for much longer, Yassa said.
But leaving the biomass on the forest floor to decompose isn’t what is called for in the 4FRI plan.
On about a quarter of the acreage under contract in 4FRI, the loggers can leave piles of biomass, but those are later burned by the Forest Service, spokeswoman Brienne Pettit wrote in an email. Everywhere else, the material has to be removed. Besides trucking chipped woody biomass to Novo BioPower, 4FRI contractors also sell the chipped material as landscaping material or for heating pellets, Pettit wrote.
Figuring out the emissions equation for forest biomass is a complex question without simple answers, said Gregg Marland, a research professor with the Research Institute for Environment, Energy and Economics at Appalachian State University.
In his view, if the wood is going to either be burned in big piles or left to decay anyhow, then “I think you gain by using some of the wood to displace coal or natural gas,” Marland said.
But if the question is between burning the forest material and making a longer-lived product out of it, Marland and Yassa agreed it’s the latter.
“We think if you can capture that carbon in long-lived product you're doing better for the climate,” Yassa said.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration threw the burgeoning movement to legalize marijuana into uncertainty Thursday as it lifted an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules collide with federal drug law.
Sessions' action, just three days after a legalization law went into effect in California, threatened the future of the young industry, created confusion in states where the drug is legal and outraged both marijuana advocates and some members of Congress, including Sessions' fellow Republicans. Many conservatives are wary of what they see as federal intrusion in areas they believe must be left to the states.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who represents Colorado, one of eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use, said the change contradicts a pledge Sessions made to him before being confirmed as attorney general. Gardner promised to push legislation to protect marijuana sales, saying he was prepared "to take all steps necessary" to fight the change, including holding up the confirmation of Justice Department nominees. Another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, called the announcement "disruptive" and "regrettable."
Colorado's U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, said his office won't change its approach to prosecution, despite Sessions' guidance. Prosecutors there always have focused on marijuana crimes that "create the greatest safety threats" and will continue to be guided by that, Troyer said.
The largely hands-off approach to marijuana enforcement set forth by Barack Obama's Justice Department allowed the pot business to flourish into a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar industry that helps fund some state government programs. What happens now is in doubt.
"In deciding which marijuana activities to prosecute under these laws with the Department's finite resources, prosecutors should follow the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions," considering the seriousness of a crime and its impact on the community, Sessions told prosecutors in a one-page memo.
While Sessions, a longtime marijuana foe, has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump's top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, this change reflects his own concerns. He railed against marijuana as an Alabama senator and has assailed it as comparable to heroin.
Trump, as a candidate, said pot should be left up to the states, but his personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.
It is not clear how the change might affect states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes. A congressional amendment blocks the Justice Department from interfering with medical marijuana programs in states where it is allowed. Justice officials said they would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana related prosecutions.
Officials wouldn't say whether federal prosecutors would target marijuana shops and legal growers, nor would they speculate on whether pot prosecutions would increase.
They denied the timing was connected to the opening of California sales, which are projected to bring in $1 billion annually in tax revenue within several years. And, the officials said, Thursday's action might not be the only step toward greater marijuana enforcement. The department has the authority to sue states on the grounds that state laws regulating pot are unconstitutional, pre-empted by federal law.
Asked about the change, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said only that Trump's top priority is enforcing federal law "and that is regardless of what the topic is, whether it's marijuana or whether it's immigration."
The Obama administration in 2013 announced it would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed and keep it out of the hands of criminal gangs and children. That memo, written by then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, had cleared up some of the uncertainty about how the federal government would respond as states began allowing sales for recreational and medical purposes.
But the Sessions Justice Department believed the Cole memo created a "safe harbor" for marijuana by allowing states to flout federal law, Justice Department officials said. Sessions, in his memo, called the Obama guidance "unnecessary."
He and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers who have taken advantage to illegally grow and ship the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more.
Marijuana advocates argue those concerns are overblown and contend legalizing the drug reduces crime by eliminating the need for a black market. They quickly condemned Sessions' move as a return to outdated drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities.
A Flagstaff hunting outfitter was order to pay $30,000 in restitution after allegedly failing to provide services to 10 consumers, according to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.
The consumers all filed complaints to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich against Sonoran Outfitters Adventures LLC, and its owner, Todd Basil Rice.
The local company advertised and sold hunting, guiding and trophy delivery services in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Mexico. Sonoran Outfitters Adventures failed to delivery those services to at least 10 customers, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
All of the customers live out of state and planned to travel to Arizona and Mexico for guided hunts for deer and bighorn sheep.
Rice's lawyer, Kathryn Mahady of the Flagstaff law firm Aspey, Watkins and Diesel, said the settlement with the attorney general's office was the most "economical means of resolving the case," and that Rice and his company are not admitting any wrongdoing.
"Sonoran Outfitters did not admit to fraud in the judgment it entered with the Attorney General and there is, of course, very much more to the story than the one document provides." Mahady wrote in an official statement sent via email. "Sonoran Outfitters determined that settling the matter was the most economical means of resolving the case, which had been pending for over a year and was making it very difficult for the company to continue running its small business based out of Flagstaff."
The order also requires the hunting company to pay $30,000 in restitution to any new customers who file valid consumer fraud claims against the company within 90 days.
The consent judgment resolves a consumer fraud lawsuit filed against Sonoran Outfitters by the Attorney General’s Office in 2017. The judgment bars Sonoran Outfitters from performing future hunting, guiding and trophy delivery services as promised to consumers unless Sonoran Outfitters fully refunds all payments. Sonoran Outfitters must also adequately explain in writing all terms of any non-refundable deposit and pay another $10,000 in civil penalties to the state.
However, Mahady wrote that the statement Sonoran Outfitters can not operate until restitution is paid was inaccurate.
"Sonoran Outfitters is operating, has many hunting trips booked for clients in 2018 and provided hundreds of successful hunting trips in 2017, 2016, and since its inception in 2005," Mahady wrote. "The company will pay the restitution identified in the judgment as soon as possible and does not intend to appeal the judgment."
Attorney General Spokeswoman Mia Garcia said that Sonoran Outfitters could operate as long as the company full refunds any cancelled trips.
To file a complaint against Sonoran Outfitters Adventures, or if you believe you have been the victim of consumer fraud, you can file a consumer complaint by contacting the Attorney General’s Office in Phoenix at (602) 542-5763, in Tucson at (520) 628-6648, or outside the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas at (800) 352-8431. Bilingual consumer protection staff members are available to assist. Consumers can also file complaints online by visiting the Attorney General’s website at https://www.azag.gov/complaints/consumer.