As I sit down to write this column from my perch overlooking the American River Canyon my eyes slowly move from the rolling green hills of pine and oak, to the low meandering clouds that gently cut a thousand invisible trails in the sky, top the bright reflective lights of the snow-capped Sierra Mountains. I marvel at what my wife affectionately calls “The God Art.” But as I look upon this wondrous winter scene, I get the anxious feeling that it won’t last.
I think back and can hardly believe that just five months ago our town was suffocating in noxious smoke from wildfires that were burning in nearby Weimar and as far away as Butte County. A couple of asthma sufferers told me that they were virtual prisoners in their homes for at least a month due to the harmful health effects of the smoke. And, if that wasn’t enough, we were warned and worried at the same time about summertime blackouts that could come without warning. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Some may see summertime smoke, flickering lights and rolling blackouts as unrelated problems. But I see a linkage. For too long now, state and federal elected officials have, through a policy of suppression only, created the conditions for catastrophic wildfire, while, at the same time, not provided adequate pricing incentives to convert biomass (dead trees, brush, sawdust, rice straw, construction debris, wood pallets, etc.) to energy.
I think a business guru would call policies that result in more air pollution and an energy shortage at the same time as a “lose-lose situation.” Last year, over 7 million acres of western forests were damaged by wildfire. And closer to home, the residents in Placer, Nevada and Yuba counties endured 267 more fires last year than in the 2000, a 26% increase. Meanwhile, the passage of the ill-conceived energy “deregulation” legislation in the mid-1990s resulted in the dismantling of 28 biomass-to-energy plants and a 40% decline in the amount of energy that is created by converting biomass material. Despite the abundance of biomass material all around us, only 2% of our energy needs are now provided by converting biomass material to energy generation. We are letting this largely untapped resource simply go up in smoke while, at the same time, negligently leaving our urban interface forests unmanaged, allowing them to build up more and more potentially deadly fuels that threaten our community.
Our energy policies have not adequately taken into account the net environmental benefits of biomass-to-energy production. Converting biomass material to energy costs a penny or two more per kilowatt-hour than the burning of conventional fossil fuels, but I think the additional benefits make it worth it. According to a recent U.S. Department of Energy study, the public benefits of cleaner air, reduced loading of landfills, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, and healthier and more productive forests and watersheds was estimated to have benefited California $369 million a year. These huge benefits resulted despite low production levels of biomass-to-energy conversion in our state. And the authors of the DOE study did not attempt to measure other important social benefits such as increased rural employment, economic development, energy diversity and security.
Our federal and state elected officials need to make a commitment to full utilization of the biomass-to-energy potential. So far, our policymakers have come up short. As April 2001 CalEPA report to the Legislature concluded that “California has yet to develop comprehensive long-term policy to preserve and grow its biomass-to-energy industry.” And last year’s state takeover of energy purchasing on behalf of utility customers has not improved this situation by a single kilowatt.
I believe that we can have healthier forests, less air pollution, and rely on a cleaner and locally produced energy source if our elected officials take action on several fronts. Our congressional representative needs to ensure that the National Fire Plan is fully funded so as to reduce the dangerous fuel loading in high-risk wildland-urban interface areas like Auburn and create an adequate supply of biomass material for energy conversion. For instance, in the American River Canyon there are many areas that have up to 40 tons per acre of fuel for wildfires. From my position on the Greater Auburn Area Fire Safe Council, which was formed during the latter part of 2001, I have witnessed a more aggressive attitude by local officials in applying for grants to implement the National Fire Plan now that local residents are nudging them about the critical nature of this issue.
Next, our state representatives need to enact legislation that puts our Humpty-Dumpty energy system back together and, more specifically, provides a stable market and adequate prices for biomass-to-energy generation. For example, last year, the 11-member Assembly Natural Resources Committee failed to pass AB 802 (Dickerson), which would have provided a wide array of incentives to boost biomass-to-energy generation. It takes a majority or six votes to pass a bill out of that particular committee. On AB 802, four committee members voted “aye,” while no members voted “no.” Seven members sat on their hands. One wonders why voters continue to elect legislators who are unwilling to vote one way or the other on important legislation.
And we, as citizens, need to ensure that our elected representatives are fighting hard to put common sense forest management and energy policies in place. Without pressure from the voters, nothing will happen. As the famed Senator Everett Dirksen used to say, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.” And who knows, if our elected leaders put the right policies in place and make sure they are fully implemented, then and only then can we guarantee that future generations will be able to enjoy a healthy environment and the beauty and wonder of “The God Art.”
January 11. 2002