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California officials, environmentalists split over plans to harvest biomass from Sierra forests

Proponents say biomass production could create clean energy and new jobs in rural California communities. Critics say biomass is not the green energy some claim it to be.

STOCKTON, Calif. (CN) — Across California, proposals are trickling in for new biomass facilities that seek to convert wood pellets gathered from overcrowded forests into precious energy. 

While some tout the proposed plants as good for the economy and environment, others are concerned about impacts from the new facilities. It’s the latest chapter in a decades-long fight over forestry practices, as California tries to balance conservation and climate goals against economic development.

In Lassen and Tuolumne counties in the north of the state, Golden State Natural Resources, a coalition of rural counties, aims to build two new biomass plants. 

Under the proposal, the counties would work with U.K.-based Drax electrical company to ship wood to Stockton, where it would then be converted into electricity. But some conservationists oppose the project, fearing impacts the plants could have in communities where the material is harvested, converted into energy or transported.

Carolyn Jhajj, spokesperson for the group Rural County Representatives of California, said the proposed facilities — currently under environmental review — could prevent catastrophic fires by removing undergrowth from overgrown and undermanaged forests. 

Under the plan, trains would transport about one million tons of compressed pellets per year to the Port of Stockton, where it could then be shipped to international markets like those in Asia. Golden State Natural Resources entered into an agreement with Drax in February and is waiting on approval from the Port of Stockton.

Boosters say the projects will create sustainable energy while also removing waste wood that contributes to wildfire risk. New research from the University of California at Davis, published last year in the journal Global Change Biology Bioenergy, argues that biomass energy — when used correctly — could help California meet its goals of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 85% of 1990 levels by 2045.

One such booster is Jaron Baron, supervisor of Tuolumne County.

Several plants are being worked on in the 1.3 million-acre county, Baron said, including Yosemite Clean Energy. Despite pushback in previous years, he thinks most of the community now supports biomass harvesting as residents have become more concerned about wildfires and mill closures, which have led to a decline in forestry jobs. 

While environmental advocates wrote what Baron calls a “frustrating letter” to public officials opposing the project, he said those same critics have not actually reached out to county officials to discuss it. Unlike with other forestry-based industries like logging, Brandon thinks biomass harvesting could make use of brush and dead trees that pose serious wildfire risks.

“There’s a lot of common interest there, if they could work together,” he said of the critics. Rather than discussing pros and cons of the project, “it feels sometimes like [we’re] fighting an ideology.”

Energy plants at the Port of Stockton in Stockton, Calif. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

The letter Brandon was referring to came from a coalition of local, national and international groups. That coalition cast doubts on the project, and some accused Drax of sidestepping environmental regulations. 

In 2019, Drax paid $2.5 million for air pollution violations in Mississippi. In 2022, it settled two Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality claims after the company put wood pellet plants in majority-Black communities with high poverty rates. 

In February, a BBC investigation revealed that a Drax power plant was burning wood from protected old-growth forests in Canada. And in March, regulators in Washington State accused Drax of starting construction on a wood pellet facility without a required air-discharge permit. 

Rita Vaughan Frost, a conservationist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said projects like the proposed ones in Northern California are about corporate profits — not wildfire mitigation or rural jobs.

“Industrial-scale wood pellet projects meant for overseas energy markets, like those owned by Drax, won’t solve California’s wildfire problem,” Frost said. Instead, "it can actually make the problem worse.”

Downstream at the Port of Stockton, some community leaders are also concerned about the impacts of biomass shipment, including on immigrant communities. That includes South Stockton, which until recently had the largest population of Filipinos outside of the Philippines.

Gloria Alonso Cruz, an environmental justice advocate with the group Little Manila Rising, said that the project will only worsen pollution, noise and traffic problems already affecting South Stockton. 

“We are already overburdened with severe health risks from existing toxic air pollution. South Stockton understands the lasting trauma and sacrifices of the past, and we rise in opposition to GSNR’s project,” Cruz said. “We deserve to not be treated as a sacrifice zone.”

Not all conservation groups oppose the plan. Some say that those concerned about wildfires and climate change need to find compromise with California’s rural communities and argue — not with controversy — that biomass fuel is cleaner than coal and gas. 

John Buckley, executive director with the group Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, thinks biomass projects in the Sierra Nevada region could find a use for leftover waste wood left from thinning and logging projects. 

“In reality, the waste wood is already being burned either way,” Buckley said. "Using biomass wood chips to create electricity does not add any new burning of biomass.”

“It simply shifts the burning of biomass to a facility, rather than the same material being burned out in the national forest,” Buckley added. “And in most cases, when it is burned at a biomass plant, the filters required by the state reduce emissions [and] pollutants compared to open burning in the forest.”

The Port of Stockton as seen in Stockton, Calif., where plants and renewable energy facilities are located. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

Buckley disagrees with claims from groups like the Sierra Club that burning wood creates more pollution than coal — or that such projects would incentivize clearing forests. Instead, he said biomass projects could use wood that would otherwise go to waste.

“The main lumber company in our vast mountain region often chooses to simply burn the waste wood after their clearcut logging projects, because it is easier and because there is minimal economic gain from chipping the material and transporting the woody chips to a biomass facility,” he said. “In 30 years of biomass being produced in our vast region, our center is not aware of a single area where there has ever been forest clearing done to produce wood chips for biomass.”

Still, in a major caveat, Buckley said he shares other conservationists’ concerns about pollution created from shipping biomass products overseas.

“It may be true that [shipping the products] would reduce some environmental impacts caused by mining coal and burning coal in Japan and Europe,” he said, “but the huge transportation impacts appear to make the project a loser.”

Golden State Natural Resources has not released draft reports of the potential environmental impacts from the proposed projects in Lassen and Tuolumne counties and from transport to Stockton. The plan is still in the preliminary review stage, said Jaime Holt, a spokesperson at Stockton’s Valley Air District. 

Without a draft environmental impact report, regulators can’t weigh in on potential area impacts. “We have reached out to the Port of Stockton and are awaiting the draft,” she said. 

In the meantime, Buckley hopes residents will stay open-minded about the plans. “To take a position before the facts and mitigation measures are spelled out is premature,” he said.

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Categories / Energy, Environment, Regional

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