Recommendations for a Sustainable Bioenergy Policy

A Sustainable Bioenergy Policy for the Period After 2020: Stakeholder Conference
Tom Tidwell, Chief
Brussels, Belgium
— May 12, 2016

Thank you for the opportunity to offer some thoughts today on the European’s Commission preparation of a sustainable bioenergy policy for the period after 2020. As several speakers have noted today, continuing concerns about energy security and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to drive research, development, and deployment of sustainable biofuels, biopower, and bioproducts.

Biomass has an important role to play in combating climate change, encouraging rural development, supporting a diversified and secure energy market, and contributing to a healthy global economy and trade. I will touch upon how that has been the case for biomass markets and forest lands in the United States.

I was asked to share my opinions on what should be the “guiding principles” for an EU sustainable bioenergy policy. I can by no means give a complete and thorough answer to that question. However, I can offer some suggestions on some aspects I hope will be considered in the development of the policy.

Focus on Outcomes

I suggest focusing on outcomes rather than processes. This would include recognizing the importance of building flexibility into regulations so that different approaches can yield equivalent results, especially because regulatory regimes and approaches to sustainability vary by country and scale.

I think we all agree on the need to work towards sustainability. We agree on the importance of addressing pressing social, economic, and ecological challenges in order to ensure the viability of our planet for future generations. In September 2015, the United States and 192 other nations formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. These global goals represent a universal agenda for both developing and developed economies. They include goals and measurable targets for healthy ecosystems, communities, and rural economies. 

Although based on shared goals, the SDGs do not prescribe exactly how countries and partners should achieve progress. A variety of methods and tools exist for achieving sustainable outcomes. Countries differ, for example, in their use of certification schemes, chain of custody, and development of criteria and indicators. Some countries may use still other methodologies to guide sustainable forest management. There is no single globally agreed-upon definition or standard of sustainability. Therefore, being highly prescriptive in methods for incorporating sustainability into policy and regulations may have adverse effects. I suggest accepting a range of equivalent mechanisms for achieving and verifying sustainability.

Let me offer a concrete example.

The United States has about 7.5 percent of the world’s forests, a little over 300 million hectares. There are multiple forest ownership types in the United States, including federal, state, tribal, local, and private. The U.S. Forest Service, the agency I lead, directly manages 78 million hectares of national forests and grasslands for future and current generations of Americans. That’s about 20 percent of the forest land in the United States. The U.S. Forest Service manages these federal lands for multiple uses, including conservation, production, and recreation. Other federal agencies manage another 13 percent of our nation’s forest land for a variety of uses and benefits. State lands are also managed for a variety of benefits; they comprise about 9 percent of the forest lands in the United States.

This next statistic I am going to share is very important. About 56 percent of the forest land (179 million hectares) in the United States is owned and managed by some 11 million private forest landowners. Of these private owners, 95 percent are classified as “family and individual” ownerships, 4 percent as “corporate” ownerships, and 1 percent is classified as “other private” ownerships.

In 2014, the United States exported 4.4 million short tons of wood pellets primarily for generating electricity in the European Union. The wood that created these wood pellets came predominantly from private lands. 

Some EU member states are currently considering mandatory certification as part of their bioenergy sustainability policy. Yet only about 20 percent of U.S. timber land is certified. This reflects patterns of ownership, boundaries of government authority to regulate land, and economic and practical realities for various U.S. forest landowners.

The U.S. Forest Service works closely with our state and private partners through direct financial and technical assistance to state and private lands, joint research programs, and development and transfer of new science, technology, and decision support tools to the broad forestry community. However, the U.S. Forest Service has no mandate or authority to regulate private lands. In other words, we cannot regulate or require use of certification systems by any owner.

Does this mean that our forest management practices are unsustainable? I would wholeheartedly argue no. We have maintained our forest land base over the past 50 years, as well as a healthy forest products industry. The U.S. Forest Service is a world leader in natural resource research and monitoring activities. We take our role seriously and carefully monitor forest conditions across all ownerships and regions. We use models to anticipate future changes in these conditions and any problems that could arise. The United States has vigorous monitoring and reporting systems regarding changing forest conditions through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program; through state-level best management practices for private landowners; and through regulatory policies aimed at protecting clean water and wetlands and protecting and recovering endangered species.

Overarching federal legislation, such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, guides some aspects of the land management on private lands. However, forest regulation of private lands is mainly regulated at the state level. The United States has a broad array of laws, regulations, and policy instruments addressing sustainable forest management, applied at the federal, state, and local levels. The diversity of these approaches and their democratic underpinnings are a fundamental characteristic of forest policy and management in the United States.

There are real consequences to imposing unnecessary burdens. If small U.S. forest landowners find that the certification or verification requirements to access EU markets are overly burdensome, financially and timewise, then they may decide to sell their forest lands. This endangers the very existence—not to mention the sustainability of forest lands in the United States and all the benefits provided by them. Fragmentation of forests, especially due to pressure from urban development, is a very real consideration in the southeastern United States, where most wood pellets are sourced. While we understand the need to put in place sound sustainability policies, it is just as important to consider adverse unintended policy outcomes from an overly regimented, prescriptive policy.

The Pillars of Sustainability

My second suggestion is to balance the pillars of sustainability—social, economic, and ecological—based on sound science. By that I mean that the policy decisionmaking process is based on sound science—on solid, proven information. I also mean that no pillar is so heavily weighted that it undermines another pillar.

For the United States, the biomass market is helping us reach domestic goals in all three areas of social, economic, and ecological sustainability.

Socially, the forest products industry, including biomass utilization, is a critical part of rural economic development in the United States. The main driver for growing wood pellets is the European Commission’s 2020 climate and energy plan. Bioenergy investments can generate profits for investors and growers, create jobs, improve livelihoods, and increase economic opportunities in rural areas.

Economically, studies have consistently found that demand for wood products, including specifically wood pellets, actually helps maintain or increase the amount of land in forests. Research on the impact of pellet markets in the southeastern United States shows increased removals and at the same time an increase in forest area, with little change in forest inventory, and annual gains in forest carbon in most years of the analysis. The U.S. Forest Service continues to research these questions to quantify outcomes and inform sustainable management systems.

Ecologically, biomass energy is creating markets for small or defective trees in new areas. These new markets are helping us achieve a variety of forest management and sustainability goals: wildfire mitigation, forest health, restoration, watershed improvements, wildlife habitat, timber stand improvement, aesthetics, and more across the landscape. These goals are particularly important in addressing growing forest stresses from climate change and invasive species. The real value of forest biomass for energy production is its renewability and potential sustainability; woody biomass from forests can be harvested and then regrown in a sustainable manner.

In addition, the maintenance and increase in forest lands from a healthy bioenergy market can also contribute to other forest ecosystem services, such as clean water, nonwood products, habitat, and recreation. 


My third recommendation is to support transparency in forestry policy. The United States supports transparency in the development of any new policy with the potential to affect producers and exporters of bioenergy feedstocks and products. We appreciate the European Commission hosting this symposium as one way to seek input from stakeholders. We encourage the EC to provide other opportunities for stakeholder input at different points in the development of its policy.

Research and Development

Finally, I urge the EC to ensure enabling conditions for investments in research and development. According to International Energy Agency studies, advanced biofuels can provide infrastructure-compatible, low-carbon fuels, with higher land use efficiency and a better greenhouse gas balance than some first-generation biofuels. Analyses also show that biomass, including wood, will play an increasingly important role in heat and power production. Cofiring biomass in coal-fired plants provides an opportunity for short-term and direct reduction of emissions, and biomass heat and electricity are competitive with fossil fuels, depending on conversion efficiencies and supply chain costs.  

Adequate financial and tax incentives are vital to ensuring that industry and the research community continue to improve and refine sustainable management and production systems, as well as efficiencies and safety in the use of biofuels. Ongoing research is needed to make bioenergy use even more environmentally responsible, affordable, and practical across the entire supply chain.

My four recommendations by no means touch upon all the different aspects that need to be considered in developing a sustainable biomass policy. But I hope that my remarks provide some food for thought. The U.S. Forest Service is and will continue to be deeply interested in the role that forests play in a sustainable bioeconomy worldwide. I’ve learned a lot listening to the variety of speakers today, and again I appreciate this opportunity for dialogue.