Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has criticized President Barack Obama’s administration for seeking to limit coal-fired power plant emissions while not allowing sufficient timber cutting to tame big western wildfires, another greenhouse gas source.
Otter told reporters at a Western Governors’ Association meeting in Park City, Utah, on June 30 that Idaho wildfires release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than is released during the production of coal-generated electricity for Idaho’s 1.5 million residents.
The Republican governor’s numbers may be technically correct, but some scientists say the link was misleading because it focused on a single, sparsely populated state with large swaths of range and timberland that burn annually.
In addition, Otter didn’t differentiate between carbon captured in trees or grass over a period of years from the ancient carbon that’s been locked underground in coal since the days of the dinosaurs.
“They’re not equivalent types of emissions,” said Jason Neff, a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder and an author of a 2007 study that examined U.S. wildfire emissions.
Wildfires boost concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere for only a few years until the carbon returns to the forest in the form of new trees and vegetation. But fossil fuel emissions, mined from deposits hundreds of millions of years old and burned quickly to power electricity-generating turbines, are a much more significant source of increased, long-lasting atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.
“From a human perspective, that’s new carbon,” Neff said.
Neff’s study shows Idaho wildfires from 2002 to 2006 sent an average of 14.3 million tons of carbon dioxide skyward each year. There’s a margin of error of over 8 tons, given inexact data about the blazes’ extent and the nature of the material that burned.
Meanwhile, the state’s coal-fired electricity – produced in Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming by plants owned by Idaho utilities – likely emitted over 6 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, according to several reports, including one from Idaho Power Co., Idaho’s biggest utility.
Nationally, Neff’s study – funded by the National Science Foundation – estimated U.S. wildfires release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, amounting to 4 percent to 6 percent of America’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning.
Power plants account for 40 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, with most coming from burning coal at plants such as the Jim Bridger facility in Wyoming, which is co-owned by Idaho Power Co. and PacifiCorp.
As part of his climate change initiative announced the week of June 24, President Obama is directing the Environmental Protection Agency to create the first-ever federal limits on carbon dioxide emissions, which trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Many fear the limits will drive up energy costs.
Tom Perry, Otter’s chief legal counsel, said his boss was simply making the point that federal agencies such as the EPA – slated to be Obama’s carbon dioxide police – don’t seem to be on the same page as land managers at the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management who have failed to reduce their own wildfire emissions.
Otter joins many people in Idaho, where two-thirds of the land is managed by the Forest Service and BLM, who believe poor federal oversight, burdensome regulations and lawsuits to block logging and grazing have put a stranglehold on the natural resources economy and contributed to unnaturally dense stands of trees ripe for catastrophic blazes.
This wasn’t Otter’s first challenge of the federal government’s land management policies amid a potentially difficult Idaho fire season. In 2007, for example, he lambasted grazing policies for hamstringing ranchers’ livestock operations and leaving too much combustible vegetation.
“I can’t remember the last time we called out the fire department to put out a manure fire,” Otter said that July, as the 1,000-square-mile Murphy Fire burned on the Nevada border. “But I can a grass fire.”