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Branching Out

Waste Biomass Policies to Promote Wildfire Resilience and Emission Reduction

In response to California’s devastating wildfires over the past several years, government and private landowners are removing excess material at risk of burning, such as dead trees and other vegetation, to create fire breaks and less dense areas that protect lives and buildings. Once cut and stacked, this material risks burning in the next fire, creating additional carbon emissions and air pollution. Yet rather than leave the waste debris on the forest floor, property owners could potentially use it to create wood products, chips and mulch, or other end uses, which can help defray the costs of wildfire treatments and offset emissions from the production of these products.

Mechanical treatment is just one of a collection of forest management approaches to address wildfire risk. Material buildup from mechanical treatments can threaten progress towards fire risk reduction goals that produced the waste material in the first place, while adding to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

In many cases, waste material is left onsite and accumulates over time. It often cannot be transported or open-air burned because of a lack of trained labor capacity, air quality concerns and limited periods when burning can be conducted, and lack of economic markets for end uses.

State policy support for market development could adopt certain constraints to avoid incentivizing collection of material beyond what is produced from wildfire reduction activities, such as by focusing policies on waste/debris material and ensuring integration into the broader forest management context, among other factors.

Policy Needs

Policy Solutions

Reducing risks for investors from high costs and unpredictable supplies

Improve supply predictability and provide financial mechanisms to lower costs

The Governor

Issue an executive order directing agencies to craft a statewide strategy for innovative market development

An executive order could direct state agencies with a key role in forest health, economic development, and energy/air quality, including CAL FIRE, the California Air Resources Board, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, the State Water Resources Control Board, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and other agencies, to craft a strategic framework for market development. The framework could include a structured investment plan focused on multi-benefit projects and recruitment of local and regional manufacturers, set clear standards for equity in project design (such as community economic benefits or air/water quality protections), and identify tools to attract corporate, financial, and philanthropic investment, such as data platforms and certification strategies to provide credibility and marketing for ecosystem service projects, among other priorities.

State agencies through direction from the Governor or State Legislature

Underwrite biomass contracts at minimum contract values over a guaranteed period of time

The state could cover contracts for at least two or three years for 100,000 tons of waste biomass material at a guaranteed price per year.  Following that initial investment, participants believed they could operate with fewer future subsidies as the market develops for long-term contracts with key suppliers. In the interim, the state could allocate or bid some of the tonnage to potential suppliers like PG&E, CalRecycle, CalFire, the U.S. Forest Service, and FEMA contractors. The state could require that any financial instruments intended to bolster the wood products market are contingent upon achievement of sustainability goals, such as a minimum procurement target for residual forest material. State leaders can also look to the definition of sustainability performance targets and strategies employed for monitoring and verification as they implement policies that are specifically targeted at projects with a certain minimum commitment to using lower-value biomass.

The Governor or State Legislature

Authorize long-term, low-cost loans and other financial support

Loans could come from a state-supported catalyst fund that could attract private capital. The state could also encourage Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs)—local, private entities that obtain low-interest loans and access federal funds to provide affordable lending to small businesses and non-profit organizations in low-income communities—to expand their current programs to support waste feedstock businesses. In addition, the state could offer a level of security for a bond issue to fund waste biomass use infrastructure by assuming the “first loss” position in the event of a default.

The Governor or State Legislature

Serve as a state broker for woody feedstock supply

This state role could help avoid delays associated with siting new depots around California. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research’s five pilot projects touch upon this recommendation. For example, in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research’s ongoing pilot projects, local leaders jointly manage the entities under combined local land use authorities delegated by local government partners. A county-based entity or joint powers authority (JPA) could commit to producing reliable waste feedstock from non-commercial lands in order to absorb the risks for private parties entering into a long-term contract for this material. Policymakers could develop the appropriate organizational structure based in part on the organizational study produced by each OPR pilot project.

Improving markets for lower-value forest biomass to improve viability of investment in large-scale forest health- and resilience-oriented vegetation management

Catalyze markets through creation of new policy mechanisms and revision of existing tools

The Governor or State Legislature

Create a pilot program for regional depots to aggregate lower-value waste biomass materials

Small, lower-value waste biomass is inherently more difficult to aggregate and process than large timber, given its more heterogeneous nature and wider geographic distribution within a forest management area. Regional forest depots and wood campuses could help address this problem by providing centralized locations for managers to deliver lower-value biomass for storage (reducing reliance on potentially fire risk-prone slash piles left on the forest floor), processing (providing the necessary facilities, scale, and power supplies for chipping), and distribution (affording buyers a single location to obtain products efficiently).

The Governor or State Legislature

Direct the development of a certification and labeling program for sustainable and resilient CA biomass products

To promote purchase and production of sustainable forest products, the legislature could create a new program to certify and label wood products made substantially from California-sourced biomass that was harvested to promote forest health and wildfire resilience. The legislature could direct the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to collaborate with CAL FIRE, Fire Safe Council leaders, and academic experts to craft stringent certification standards to ensure that the label is only applied to forest health-promoting products and/or reflects multiple levels of sustainable harvest.

The Governor or State Legislature

Support data mapping and brokerage initiatives for regional supply chain management

As part of the Office and Planning and Research’s ongoing pilot projects, data and monitoring tools are under development and will eventually integrate with other existing tools and systems. Tools are envisioned to serve as digital marketplaces for waste biomass in a particular region, connecting buyers and sellers. When integrated across platforms, such tools can assist with long-term forest maintenance and carbon sequestration efforts by providing regular updates on total tree population, while aiding certification efforts by providing source-to-use tracking information.

The Governor or State Legislature

Consider updating the LCFS to better account for life-cycle emission benefits of qualifying biomass fuel sources

California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) promotes decarbonization of transportation fuels by requiring fuel sellers in the state to register and reduce the overall carbon intensity of their total fuel supplies, incentivizing the production and use of lower-carbon fuels over time. Transportation fuels derived from forest biomass can qualify for the program; however, the program’s life-cycle analysis of carbon intensity (which tracks fuels from source through production and end use) does not currently account for biogenic carbon emissions or the avoided emissions from pile burning or decay that occur when woody biomass is not put to use. The California Air Resources Board could consider updating the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reflect the avoided emissions benefits of these materials, when producers can certify a minimum percentage of avoided waste as source product, or to establish a permanent certification pathway for these fuels to streamline certification, in its next iteration of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard regulation.

Enhancing local infrastructure and capacity

Build local capacity and opportunity through technical assistance, collaboration, and workforce and economic development

The Governor or State Legislature

Direct the California Natural Resources Agency to administer a technical assistance and equipment fund for under-resourced communities

Building from CAL FIRE’s Workforce and Development Grants, the legislature could create a fund or grant program to connect communities with appropriate forest resilience and waste biomass utilization technical assistance and equipment. Communities could direct technical assistance funding to contractors, management tools, expert advice (e.g., around permitting processes), hiring laborers, or hiring management staff. State leaders could structure the technical assistance and equipment fund as a grant program or revolving loan fund and utilize private capital or local matches so that the state is not the sole contributor of capital. Recipients of funding could include local government agencies, small businesses, regional cooperatives, or community foundations or non-profit/philanthropic organizations.

The Governor or State Legislature

Direct and fund the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research to develop a technical resource clearinghouse and equipment exchange program to facilitate knowledge and resource sharing

If access to flexible, low-cost capital is not a community’s primary challenge, or if community leaders have already secured funding, direct contributions of technical assistance and equipment could enable communities to overcome capacity constraints. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research could initiate the development of a technical resource clearinghouse that provides stakeholders with up-to-date resources, datasets, case studies, and best practices for resilience-oriented waste biomass activities. The clearinghouse could provide a statewide template on waste biomass storage and processing guidelines and provide guidance around regulatory requirements and permitting. It could also share technical assistance and planning resources, such as a list of state-permitted contractors or upcoming local planning meetings, to help bolster local agencies short on funding or time. The clearinghouse may also be an appropriate place to share RFPs for projects.

The Governor or State Legislature

Direct the California Natural Resources Agency, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR), and CAL FIRE to spearhead a regional collaboration initiative to catalyze learning and progress towards forest management goals

To facilitate knowledge sharing, these entities could establish a regional collaboration initiative designed to catalyze shared learning and progress towards forest management goals. The initiative could create learning cohorts across regions to share experiences and best practices, perhaps through a training course or series of regular workshops. The legislature could direct the creation of a multi-regional initiative similar to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency tasked with coordinating economic and environmental conservation efforts across all or part of 22 California counties in the Sierra Nevada region.


The Governor or State Legislature

Dedicate resources towards forest resilience workforce and economic development at local and regional levels.

Many California communities face a shortage of workers trained in forest management professions, including accredited foresters, and especially lack the labor capacity to remove the vast quantity of waste biomass in the state’s forests, grasslands, and agricultural areas. The legislature could appropriate additional funds towards the advancement of workforce and economic development programs to further address this capacity gap and create jobs in the state’s most economically depressed regions. State leaders could target these funds to the most underserved and at-risk communities, considering both wildfire risk and economic need, and orient them specifically toward resilience-building trades and activities. State efforts could also direct additional funds to vocational education and hands-on training through California’s community colleges.