A sustainable biomass supply must be socially acceptable and economically viable. In the Rocky Mountain region of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, there are substantial quantities of woody biomass that could be used to develop a biomass-to-energy industry, with little competition for it, especially in Colorado and Wyoming. The objective of this task is to analyze economic, sociocultural, and policy constraints for beetle-kill and other forest biomass as biofuel feedstocks, and develop options for understanding, clarifying, mitigating, or overcoming socioeconomic and policy barriers to the production of carbon-negative biofuel and biochar from these abundant resources.
Cost-benefit analysis to assess economic viability
The relationship between costs of obtaining forest biomass and benefits from using it to develop an energy industry is a key economic criterion. Cost-benefit analysis starts with financial costs and returns aggregated across the region under various scenarios, as in Task 3.5, then adds secondary benefits from biomass removal, including avoided costs of future wildfire suppression and reduced hazards to humans, structures, and electricity transmission and water supply infrastructure. These benefits will be determined by surveying and interviewing resource managers.
Local acceptance of harvesting forest biomass and producing biofuel amd biochar in a carbon-negative process is linked to regional and national concerns. A social-ecological systems (SES) framework will be used to interrelate regional phenomena―e.g., human population, land ownership, feedstock distribution (Task 1), and environmental quality (Tasks 3.2, 3.5)―with local community and household acceptance, perceptions, and behavior. Land ownership is key, as 2/3 of the region’s timberlands are in national forests, where land management decisions must involve the public. Social acceptance can be a “social license to operate” and thus take action. Analysis of acceptance will be based on perceived and measurable health and economic risks or benefits, such as wildfire and climate effects, as well as factors identified above. Using results from multiple methods―ethnographic, GIS, interview, survey, and archival research―in selected communities, we will categorize local acceptance or non-acceptance into scenarios affecting available biomass supply at individual, community, and the wider region.
Public policy analysis
Policies can either constrain or enable biomass-to-energy industry development by making biomass more or less available. In this sub-task, such policies and their effects will be identified and categorized by objectives and means to attain them. This will also include an assessment of the capacity of government agencies to develop, plan for, and carry out sustainable harvesting of beetle-kill and other forest biomass. Key informant interviews with government agency timber sale administrators and private forest managers will help identify patterns of legal, regulatory, and administrative requirements imposed on, or incentives promoting, biomass availability. A typology of factors will be arrayed at the federal, state, and local levels across the region, and used to identify and analyze policy options to enhance biomass availability.