Environmental groups flip flop on biomass


The biomass industry continues to rise in Washington. Plants are being built or planned across the state, and just weeks ago the Legislature passed a bill that makes electricity produced from older biomass facilities eligible under Initiative 937, the state’s renewable energy mandate.

Last month State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark released a report showing that 3 million tons of woody biomass, double the amount that’s currently extracted, can be removed from the state’s forests without hurting forest health. The future is bright, indeed.

But despite the industry’s success, environmental groups are still waging a persistent campaign to try to halt biomass projects around the state. Don Brunell, the president of the Association of Washington Business, had an op-ed that ran this week in several papers calling out the environmentalists for their hypocrisy.

When environmental organizations pushed Washington voters to approve their renewable energy Initiative 937, they touted biomass energy — incinerated wood waste — as one of their preferred alternatives to fossil fuel. They reasoned that biomass energy plants would help clear forests of flammable wood debris from dead and diseased timber, put idled loggers and millworkers back to work, and produce cleaner, more affordable energy.

But since voters narrowly approved the initiative in 2006, many of those same activists are battling against biomass projects.

According to Brunell, the opposition from environmental groups hits especially hard on the west edge of the state.

For Olympic Peninsula workers and their struggling families, the opposition to biomass projects is both puzzling and frustrating. Fifty years ago, wood waste from state, federal and private timber harvests was burned in crude, inefficient cone-shaped burners that often blanketed the skies with brownish-gray smoke. But today’s sawmills and paper mills burn wood waste in efficient wood-fired furnaces that produce heat and steam for papermaking, and create enough electricity to run the mills and provide power for neighboring homes.

Sierra Pacific, which has a modern sawmill at Aberdeen and six biomass generating plants, turns wood waste into electricity for 150,000 homes and businesses. Without income from power sales, the plants would have been forced to severely curtail operations, lay off workers or close.

The two most visible biomass projects in the works right now are in Port Townsend and Port Angeles. As the Peninsula Daily News points out, environmental groups have been unsuccessful in stopping the projects, and the Port Angeles mayor recently wrote a letter of appreciation to the owner of the proposed biomass plant there.

The environmental groups are no doubt a very vocal minority in these communities. But their opposition still baffles, Brunell says.

Biomass projects are an opportunity to recycle dangerous timber debris, create renewable energy, produce electricity for our homes and businesses, and create much-needed jobs in struggling rural communities.

With flammable wood remains collecting on the forest floor and timber workers collecting unemployment checks, it seems silly, wasteful and dangerous to oppose biomass, a solution that will reduce wildfires, increase jobs and produce cleaner, more affordable renewable energy.