One reason bills addressing climate change have difficulty passing in Congress is structural. Because each state has equal representation in the Senate, 11% of the population has enough heft to stall any bill through a filibuster. Regardless of party affiliation, senators in the northern prairie states have a history of opposing any bill focused on energy independence or energy efficiency. These senators are good, however, in promoting legislation favoring local industries. Senate Bill 3381 is one of them.
S.B. 3381 would amend the current myriad of existing regulations that define acceptable biofuel feedstock. The bill goes further by mandating that any future renewable electricity standards or greenhouse gas regulations heed such streamlined biofuel feedstock definitions. Sounds good so far, right? But here’s the fine print: the bill defines acceptable biofuel sources as what is embedded in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, generally known as the 2008 Farm Bill. In other words, wood from federal forest lands would become widely available.
The bill’s sponsors claim this is a bipartisan effort, which sounds promising until you realize that they are Montana’s two senators (Democrat) and Michael Crapo, a Republican from Idaho. Both states house huge swaths of federal lands, and represent large timber interests including Plum Creek Timber, one of the largest landowners and forest products producers in the United States. True, Max Baucus, the senior senator from Montana, makes a valid point: the evidence suggests that global warming has affected Montana judging from the acres of dead trees who have fallen prey to the mountain pine beetle. These dead trees are a fire hazard, so amending regulations allowing them to be cleared and processed into wood chips makes sense.
The concern many renewable energy advocates and environmentalists have is that the federal government has a history of lax oversight—a certain oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is obviously Exhibit A, but there exists countless examples of federal agencies looking the other way while our natural resources are exploited. Nathanael Greene of the Natural Resource Defense Council points out that the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act prohibits the removal of biomass from federally managed lands. If the 2008 Farm Bill becomes the acceptable standard for biomass production, the treat that natural growth forest on private land could be turned into bio-crop plantations. And while tree plantations may look nice and can produce sustainably-grown wood, they do not provide the natural habitat and ecosystem benefits of a diverse natural growth forest.
If S.B. 3381 had safeguards ensuring that only dead growth such as what exists in Montana’s forests be converted into biomass, we could breathe easier over this pending legislation. But judging by how timber companies are salivating over this proposal, we should be wary and cast a doubtful eye. The federal government has a history of passing regulations but not hiring the manpower needed to enforce them.