A new project will evaluate the sustainability of using the millions of acres of forests killed by mountain pine beetles to create biofuel. (Photo courtesy Josh King).

Study evaluates turning dead trees to gasoline

— November 19, 2013

The epidemic of mountain pine beetles that ravaged millions of acres of forest land in the West may have an upside. New technology could convert dead trees into gasoline to lower carbon emissions.

University of Wyoming professors are part of a biofuel research team lead by Colorado State University, which includes researchers from universities in Idaho and Montana, the U.S. Forest Service and a private company, Cool Planet Energy Systems. The team will investigate the impacts of using trees killed by mountain pine beetle to make high octane gasoline.

Kelsey Dayton

The research project received a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The new group, also known as Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR), will study ecological and social challenges that could limit production of biofuel using insect-killed tress in the Rocky Mountains. Pine and spruce beetles have impacted more than 42 million acres of U.S. forests since 1996, and climate change threatens to expand the impact of bark beetle on forests, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.

“As we take steps to fight the bark beetle, this innovative research will help take the biomass that results from bark beetle infestation and create clean, renewable energy that holds potential for job creation and promises a cleaner future for America,” Vilsack said.

This is the first project targeting the intermountain West, said Dan Tinker, associate professor of botany at the University of Wyoming. Tinker is a member of the study team.

University of Wyoming Associate Professor of Botany, Dan Tinker

The West has an abundance of dead trees that can feed wildfires. From a fuel reduction stand point, getting some of the biomass out of the forests could be a good thing, said Tinker, who specializes in fire reduction research.

Tinker will lead an ecological impact assessment. Removing the dead trees to create biofuel needs to have zero impact, if not a positive impact on the environment, he said. Researchers will monitor test plots for the five years. It won’t be done on a large scale if the research shows negative impacts on the forest ecosystems, Tinker said.

“This could be a fledgling industry. But that’s what we are trying to test, is it sustainable?” Tinker said.

Cool Planet opened in September 2009 and has been working with grasses and other woody biomasses like pine and softwoods from the southern United States to create biofuel, said Mike Rocke, vice president of business development with the company.

The company uses heat and pressure to break down the mass and turn it into fuel. The process also produces a byproduct called biochar.

The beetle-killed trees in the northwestern United States will follow the same process.

“Wood is wood,” he said.

The difference is the abundance of dead wood in the Western forests that could be used by the company, Rocke said.

About two years ago Cool Planet staff visited the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado where they learned about the issues of the dead trees throughout the West. It immediately clicked that those 40 million acres of beetle-killed trees could provide feedstock for the company’s patented system of turning biomass to biofuel, Rocke said.

Cool Planet created a modular system that includes establishing a conversion plant near where dead trees are harvested. These micro refineries can produce 10 million gallons of biofuel a year- which takes about 200,000 tons of wood, Rocke said. Cool Planet has plans for opening 400 plants in the next seven years across the United States. The modular systems will be installed in areas identified with the greatest need for tree removal — likely due to high fire danger. The trees aren’t hauled farther than 30 miles from where they are harvested. The fuel is then shipped to Cool Planet’s partners, like BP and Conoco Phillips that add it to gasoline to lower the carbon-footprint of their product, Rocke said.

Once an area is cleared of beetle-killed trees, the modular system can be moved to another spot. Not only will the process rid forests of dead trees, it also will create jobs hauling and removing trees and working in the plants, Rocke said. He did not have an estimate on how many jobs the project could create.

While other companies have created similar processes for making biofuel, Cool Planet’s is unique in that it also creates biochar, which can go back into the ground and enhances soil productivity and health, helping with water retention and regrowth and as a way to sequester carbon dioxide, Rocke said.

That gives Cool Planet’s biofuel a carbon negative rating.

“Carbon neutral means you don’t put any carbon into the air, but you don’t take any carbon out,” Rocke said. “Our process is carbon negative. We actually clean the air of the CO2, not just make fuel.”

Tinker said he doesn’t anticipate negative environmental impacts from the process, but collecting baseline data and evaluating test plots is important to be confident. Researchers will look at areas like soil, microbe communities, hydrology and overall ecosystem functions. Fuel reduction could be positive, opening the understory of the forest, allowing new plants and trees to grow and increasing biodiversity. There are challenges, like how the dead forests are often far from industrial centers and can be hard to access. No roadless or wilderness areas are being considered for the project, Tinker said.

Sarah Strauss

The project is unique in that it not only spans several Western states, it includes research across multiple disciplines. It examines economic and social impacts as well as the ecological ones.

“This is about more than just the trees in the forest, it’s about the communities as well,” Tinker said. “We are testing whether or not this is something that is sustainable and ecologically neutral, and what’s the impact on communities and other stakeholders.”

Sarah Strauss, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming will talk with communities that could be impacted if trees are harvested for biofuel. Among other things she’ll investigate, she’ll research how using the trees could economically, environmentally and health-wise impact communities. She’ll also be gathering information on how forests are valued, what concerns different stakeholders have, and if people understand biofuels.

The strength of the study lies in the multi-discipline approach, she said. It’s a way to include stakeholders and communities, as well as gather information on potential opportunities and problems from the industry.

“The human dimensions are critical,” she said.

This summer she and other researchers will use approaches ranging from individual interviews to GIS to archival research and surveys to understand the cultural, social and concerns of stakeholders.

Sylvia Parker
Milt Geiger

Of the $10 million, University of Wyoming will receive about $1 million for its part of the study. In addition to Tinker and Strauss, University of Wyoming Energy Extension Specialist Milt Geiger will develop resources to inform the public about economic and community impacts. Science and Mathematics Teaching Center Coordinator Sylvia Parker will help develop educational programs on bioenergy-related topics for all levels of science classes.

The research is in line with the USDA’s goal to develop and expand sustainable bioenergy systems, Tinker said.

Research will begin in the summer, Tinker said. The first test plots are in Colorado and Idaho, but others will be added throughout the region, including in Wyoming.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. I agree entirely with Mr Hoskins comment above. Why would we pretend that adding insult to injury (salvage logging after beetle infestation) will be “good for the forests?” We have already lost so much forest and what remains is hugely threatened by the coming impacts of climate change we should be doing everything in our power to protect them and let them regenerate. Further, Cool Planet assumes that biochar works based on the hype that has surrounded it. But a careful assessment of the science will demonstrate that there is no basis whatsoever for assuming that biochar will store carbon in soils or improve soil quality! Readers should look at the review of science and policy from Biofuelwatch (critical review of science and policy) and other materials here: http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/?s=biochar
    and more recent update here: http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/other_comments/2016620/biochar_a_cause_for_concern.html

    Its easy to make claims. Incredible that USDA and others have bought this line hook line and sinker. Also as point of fact, EPA is currently engaged in a process of evaluating how to account for emissions from biomass. The consensus already is clear that it is FALSE to make blanket assumption that biomass is “carbon negative”. That being the case, Cool Planet’s process claim to be “carbon negative” – is based on false assumption upon false assumption. Clearly they have a knack for selling their wares however full of bunk, as they seem to have attracted investment.

  2. The concept of fighting mountain pine beetles is absurd. The concept of fighting the beetle through fuels reduction is even more absurd.

    Over the last five years or so, I’ve been riding and hiking the high country of the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem tracking the advance of the mountain pine beetle through whitebark pine forests. The purpose of my project was to assess the loss of whitebark pine seeds on the grizzly bear, for whom the seeds are a major food.

    Using an assessment system devised by retired US Forest Service entomologist Dr Jesse Logan, with 1 being a healthy forest relatively unaffected by the beetle and 5 a forest dead from beetle infestation, I watched watershed after watershed advance from one whole number to the next higher number over the course of just one year.

    Yes, the beetle kill has been severe throughout this part of the Rocky Mountains. However, one can reasonably ask whether it’s been “devastating.”

    One of the things I noticed during my high country travels is that regeneration of whitebark pine at high elevations and lodgepole pine at lower elevations is still a robust, ongoing process. I observed untold numbers of young trees of varying ages and sizes growing across the landscape in these supposedly dead, beetle killed forests. Consequently, I’m not convinced that the beetle kill, even though greatly enhanced by climate warming, is “unnatural” or even “unprecedented” and thus needs special measures to deal with it.

    The whole argument about beetle kill being bad reminds me of the old arguments about fire being bad. We’ve finally moved to a more rational, ecologically sensible attitude toward fire. I think we need to do the same thing for beetle kill. At least we need to be patient and track what is happening on the land in response to climate change so that we can adapt to it while doing as little damage as possible.

    I have no doubt that removal of large amounts of Rocky Mountain biomass for fuel production at the levels projected by Cool Planet, Inc., the US Department of Agriculture, and the timber industry is inherently damaging to forests. That is, it is inherently unsustainable. Further, I have no doubt that if this project goes forward and biomass fuel is eventually produced for national and even international markets, that eventually roadless areas and even wilderness will be at risk of biomass reduction “treatment” to fill the maw of Cool Planet’s refineries. After all, that’s where most of the beetle kill is.

    The strategic question for me is not what we will do with all these dead trees. Indeed, we don’t need to “do” anything. They’re already being taken care of by natural processes that go back millions of years. Rather, the larger question is, will climate change allow these regenerating forests to come back? It might, or it might not. So how does biomass conversion to fuel fit into that question? Will we so damage forests by removing large amounts of biomass that we lose what resilience remains after the impacts of climate change?

    When the ecological future of western forests is so uncertain in the face of climate change, we don’t need the added stress on forests of removing so much biomass that their recovery is stilted, stunted, or even stopped.