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How forest-thinning waste could fund California's wildfire-prevention effort

by Steve Frisch, Sierra Business Council and Sam Uden, Conservation Strategy Group |

Reducing catastrophic wildfire is one of the state’s most challenging climate problems. A recent study by researchers at UCLA and the University of Chicago found that wildfire carbon emissions from the 2020 fire season alone were more than double the amount of overall emissions reduced in California from 2003 to 2019.

The state set a goal of treating 1 million forested acres per year to reduce wildfire risk. While there is no firm figure available, the state currently treats an estimated 200,000 acres per year, excluding commercial timber harvest.

The challenge: how do we get from treating 200,000 acres to 1 million acres as quickly as possible?

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent budget commitments are important, but they are not enough. If it costs about $2,000 to $4,000 treat one acre, that means we need $2 to $4 billion every year for the next two decades, purely for forest treatments. That amounts to over half of the state’s natural resources budget some years – conflicting with expanding needs on drought, extreme heat and sea-level rise.

There is a potential solution that can generate climate, air quality and rural economic development benefits while helping California meet its forest treatment goals: converting waste biomass into valuable products.

Waste biomass refers to the residues – primarily small, woody material – that result from an ecological thinning operation. The residues are valueless. They are often left in piles to decompose, or worse, burned in place. UC Berkeley estimates that hundreds of millions of tons of waste biomass will accrue if California achieves its forest treatment goals, essentially creating an emissions time bomb that could amplify the already ominous forest-climate reality.

But the problem can be flipped on its head. If these residues can be collected and turned into something of value, then the state would not only avert a significant new emissions source, but also unlock a revenue stream to help support its forest treatment goals.

The groundwork for this strategy is already taking shape. A promising option is to turn the waste into a biofuel such as hydrogen or a sustainable aviation fuel. The California Air Resources Board anticipates that billions of gallons of these low-carbon fuels will still be needed in 2045.
Fitting the facilities with carbon capture technology can generate carbon dioxide removal – something CARB has already deemed as essential to meet the state’s net-zero emissions goals.
There is potential to expand the biomass strategy to agricultural and municipal waste as well, especially since the drought is forcing farmers to fallow land. Some are burning their waste, worsening the air quality in neighboring communities as a result.

While the state has made some investments in waste biomass, it is not part of the core strategy to address the wildfire crisis. One possibility as to why is the legacy left by traditional bioenergy – large-scale combustion, for example – which pollutes urban areas. But new technologies and processes are making it significantly cleaner.

Another fear is that any biomass plan is a slippery slope to the kinds of practices occurring in the East Coast where energy crops in North Carolina support a biomass industry in England, with dubious overall climate benefits.

The situation is much different in the American West, though. Here, the available biomass is a waste product resulting from wildfire mitigation treatments – not a purpose-grown energy crop. Moreover, almost 90 percent of forest lands are owned by the public and small-scale landholders.

Biomass is not a silver bullet, but it could greatly reduce severe wildfires and the resulting carbon emissions. Some careful planning would be needed the build out the necessary infrastructure. The state could create incentives that are contingent upon the biomass being a residue from wildfire risk-reduction treatments as a safeguard against possible bad actors.

Western forests are faced with an existential threat. With thoughtful execution, a waste biomass strategy can help turn the tide in our favor.