Biofuel boondoggle — collateral damage

“It sounded like a good idea: Provide a little government money to convert wood shavings and plant waste into renewable energy.

But as laudable as that goal sounds, it could end up causing more economic damage than good — driving up the price of raw timber, undermining an industry that has long used sawdust and wood shavings to make affordable cabinetry, and highlighting the many challenges involved in decreasing the nation’s dependence on oil by using organic materials to create biofuels.

In a matter of months, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program — a small provision tucked into the 2008 farm bill — has mushroomed into a half-a-billion dollar subsidy that is funneling taxpayer dollars to sawmills and lumber wholesalers, encouraging them to sell their waste to be converted into high-tech biofuels. In doing so, it is shutting off the supply of cheap timber byproducts to the nation’s composite wood manufacturers, who make panels for home entertainment centers and kitchen cabinets.  …

This is bad news for the composite panel industry, which turns these materials into particleboard and medium-density fiberboard, and outranks the U.S. biomass industry in terms of employees and economic impact, with 21,000 employees and annual sales of $7.9 billion, according to 2006 U.S. Census data.

The biomass subsidy program could “wipe us out,” said T.J. Rosengarth, the vice president and chief operating officer of Flakeboard, the largest composite panel producer in North America. “You can say, ‘I’ve made more alternative energy,’ but at what expense?”

The much larger pulp, paper, packaging and wood products industry, which ranks among the top 10 manufacturing employers in 48 states, is just as worried. The American Forest and Paper Association sent a letter to OMB on Oct. 27 warning that the biomass program “could have the unintended consequence of jeopardizing the forest products industry and the many jobs it sustains, as well as the significant quantities of renewable energy it produces.””  “The unintended ripples from the biomass subsidy program

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