The last two weeks provided some interesting statistics on the state of the world’s forests. This week, I wanted to point your attention to a number of recent articles on another use for forests, biomass.

The value and volume of the biomass energy business is starting to catch the eyes of both investors and environmentalists.

Forbes considered both sides:

It’s a good time to be in the American wood pellet business. Dozens of manufacturers, increasingly concentrated in the Southeast, are now approaching production of 10 million annual short tons of wood pellets—ostensibly made from the leftovers at lumber mills or from the branches, slash and other woody material found on the forest floor. Another 6 million short tons of capacity is now planned or under construction, according to industry data, making the U.S. the single largest wood pellet producer in the world.

[One concern is that] … wood is far less energy-dense than coal. This means that utilities must burn a lot more wood—and create substantially more greenhouse gas in the process—to obtain the same unit of electricity as coal.

A few years ago, about 80 percent of the wood pellets created to be burned were sold domestically, mostly in the Northeast. Now most of it is headed to Europe.

A recent article in the Washington Post noted:

For the sake of a greener Europe, thousands of American trees are falling each month in the forests...

Multiple studies support the notion of using discarded wood—the parts of harvested trees that would otherwise be wasted—as a source of biomass fuel. But the problem comes when whole hardwoods are cut down to be burned in power plants, scientists say.

With more land converted to pines to make wood pellets, the vital understory is disappearing, replaced by stands of fast-growing pines that are raised as a cash drop.

National Geographic and Audubon (as well as other articles) expressed concern about conversion the conversion of habitat to plantations, with NatGeo saying:

While pellet mills alone are not likely to lead loggers into a stand of trees, environmental groups say increased demand for the lower quality wood on any given acre could create more incentive to cut natural forests or convert them to pine plantations.

This article pointed out that rather than being the way of the future, biomass could be considered a step backwards:

“What brought back the forests of Europe was coal,” said Searchinger. “England was basically deforested by 1850; they got into coal because they didn’t have any trees left. The idea that we can go back to trees, that’s not knowing history and therefore repeating it.”

Several articles suggested that the reason Europe is looking to the U.S. for supply is because we have fewer regulations on harvest.

All the articles linked here provide quite a bit of information on the pluses and minuses of biomass: how it is a wonderful new industry that adds value to waste while offering an additional greener energy source, but on the other hand, how it could also be potentially threatening high-value forests and important wildlife habitat, while also being actually far less green than advertised. Several articles suggested that the reason Europe is looking to the U.S. for supply is because we have fewer regulations on harvest—that it is not considered the best forest practice over there.

It’s a complex issue, but your industry associations—the NWFA, the NHLA, and many others, are starting to take political stands on this. I encourage everyone to study up and decide if this is an industry you want to support. For better or worse, and I’m not sure which it actually is, the demands of biomass industry could have a huge impact on the future of the forests available for the flooring industry.

Elizabeth Baldwin has over 20 years of international wood sourcing experience. Very widely traveled, her résumé's "Special Skills" section includes "the ability to eat anything from raw horse to deep-fried scorpion." She serves as Metropolitan Hardwood Flooring's (metrofloors.com) ECO (Environmental Compliance Officer) and deals daily with the "green alphabet soup" of today's industry: FSC, CARB, LEED, and much more. She blogs for Hardwood Floors on all things green (and, as she says, " 'grey' and 'blue' and almost every color except 'black and white.' Nothing in this world is black and white, particularly not 'green issues.'")