Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal

There are a lot of similarities between the timber and coal industries. They use essentially the same raw material. They both have contributed a lot to past economic growth, but now mostly do more harm than good. They both generate wide-ranging environmental damage, receive massive subsidies and emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. To avoid climate catastrophes, we must quickly rein them in.

Trees and coal are essentially the same thing: carbon, which comes from photosynthesis that has removed carbon dioxide from the air. But one is young and green and the other old and black.

Nobody denies that both have done a lot of good for human society. Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and generated vast amounts of electricity. The lumber from Oregon’s trees has built a lot of houses.

But the industries that produce these benefits impose great costs on individuals, communities and society as a whole. Among these is the carbon dioxide emissions, which worsen the deaths, illnesses, economic disasters and environmental catastrophes of climate change.

Coal’s role as the largest source of these emissions has long been recognized. In contrast, the timber industry’s emissions have been overlooked. Last year, for example, the Oregon Global Warming Commission (OGWC) wouldn’t say what effect industrial timber production has on emissions. This year, all that changed. Prominent researchers at OSU showed that industrial timber production emits about 33 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. These are the net emissions, after accounting for the carbon dioxide removed from the air by small trees planted after logging and the amount of carbon kept out of the air by wood products.

By comparison, the OGWC reported that Oregon’s 2015 emissions from other sources totaled 63 million tons and the largest source, the transportation sector, emitted 23 million tons. Hence, it looks like the timber industry is Oregon’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, just as the coal industry is elsewhere.

Timber’s emissions have economic consequences. Two years ago, the Bureau of Land Management developed data showing that carbon-dioxide emissions from logging on its lands cause climate-related economic damage that exceeds the value of the logs by more than four to one. More recent scientific research suggests the actual ratio may be closer to 50 to one. In other words, a truckload of logs is worth about $1,200, but the accompanying emissions, by intensifying wildfires, smoke, heat waves etc., generate costs of at least $5,000 and perhaps $70,000. Think about that the next time you see a log truck on the highway.

Think also about the money the timber industry takes from you in the form of subsidies. Perhaps the most important of these is tax breaks. When the industry doesn’t pay taxes, you and I fill in the gap, either by paying more ourselves, or by seeing shrinkage in governmental services like schools and healthcare. The Oregon Department of Revenue has estimated that, for the 2017-19 biennium, these subsidies total $700 million. This is equivalent to more than $430 per log truck and $230 per household each year.

That’s right. Every year, the timber industry costs your family $230 in higher taxes or smaller government services.

Of course, the timber industry, like the coal industry (and the tobacco industry before it), has a quick comeback. It puts forth different numbers to create confusion. It also argues that harmful practices and subsidies are an unavoidable necessity, because industrial logging is the only way to generate jobs in rural communities and reduce wildfires.

Don’t believe it. The cost and subsidy numbers are solid. The most intense fires occur not in old forests but in industrial clearcuts, where little trees crowded together burn fiercely. And we can do far more to generate jobs and improve wildfire safety by making homes and communities less likely to burn when fire occurs, rather than by logging trees.

The similarities between timber and coal include the steps we must take to make things better. The legislature and governor must roll back the subsidies. They must put a price on carbon-dioxide, so that the timber industry has incentives to reduce its emissions. And they must develop smart programs to make rural communities safe and prosperous.

Ernie Niemi is president of Natural Resource Economics in Eugene.

This column originally appeared in the Register-Guard.