From Wood to Wing: Opportunities to build an advanced biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest utilizing its timber-based assets

by Dr. Tamara Laninga, AICP, Scott Millman and Kenzie Payne, Moscow, Idaho

Forests have always been central to life in the Pacific Northwest. Native Americans, pioneers, railroad era barons, post-war housing developers, and modern landowners have all utilized wood, but production peaked in the 1970s, and environmental laws and economic competition will likely prevent the region from ever surpassing this mark. However, a new opportunity is being explored for utilizing the Northwest’s forest residuals and remaining timber-based assets to produce renewable liquid biofuels. Organizations such as the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) are researching the potential for this emerging industry, and success will hinge on supply chain networks, community planning, and government incentives.

Early 1970s Peak and the Changes that Followed

As the Baby Boomers matured, housing demand increased, and Pacific Northwest timber helped supply this demand. The early 1970s remain all-time highs for both regional timber production (Figure 1) and nationwide new private housing unit starts.1 2 3 Exports to Asia increased, and Japan in particular experienced rapid economic growth and housing demand from the 1960s to the 1990s.4 However, a recession came in the early 1980s, and residential investment took a hit.5 Large mills were better-equipped for efficiency, and small mills suffered the most closures. Timber-based employment fell from the 1980s onward.6

Figure 1: Washington and Oregon Harvest Totals from 1965-2012. Source: Scott Millman, University of Idaho.

Legislative changes affected timber as well. The 1964 Wilderness Act designated federal wilderness areas, and the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act focused on quality and procedural requirements.7 In 1971, Oregon passed the Forest Practices Act, addressing harvesting, reforestation, chemical use, and critical species issues. Washington passed similar legislation in 1974.8 Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act in 1974. This 1974 act, amended in 1976, aimed to balance environmental quality with long-range resource management.9

The 1973 energy crisis set the stage for today’s growing biofuels industry. The nation realized the need for greater energy independence and began to focus on biofuels as a potential source. The 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act created a demand for such fuels by mandating that all federal agencies and their contractors purchase products that had been designated as renewable by the Environmental Protection Agency, when federal funds were used for purchases of $10,000 or more.10 The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 further-promoted renewables by encouraging electric utilities to use resources other than coal and natural gas.11 Two years later, the Crude Oil Windfall Profit Tax Act provided tax credits to producers and sellers of biofuels.12

Spotted Owl and Continued Change

As the timber industry was recovering from the recession, a landmark court ruling began a new era in forest management. In 1989, the Northern Spotted Owl was listed as a threatened species in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. The 1991 decision in Northern Spotted Owl v. Lujan ruled that the Endangered Species Act required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the owl.13 After old-growth forests were designated as the owl’s critical habitat, new timber sales were banned from federal forests in those three states, affecting nearly 10 million acres and amounting to an 87 percent harvest reduction from 1988 to 1996.14 Restrictions on federal harvesting led to both a reduction of total cuts (Figure 1), and a dramatic shift in the private sector’s share compared to the public’s (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Shares of Timber Harvests in Oregon from 1962-2004. Source: Oregon Department og Forestry.

Economic trends worsened the situation. Financial collapse across the Pacific in 1997 led to lowered demand from Japan, and China was importing less U.S. softwood. Domestically, the South surpassed the Northwest in 1999 as the national leader in lumber exports.15 Meanwhile, the continued consolidation and efficiency of large corporations meant more jobs lost, and competition from global suppliers decreased profitability for the Northwest’s pulp and paper industry.16 The region was dealt another blow by the 2007-2009 Great Recession, which eliminated the most jobs and was the longest recession since the end of World War II.17 New private housing unit starts in 2009 were down 75 percent from 2005.18 In both Oregon and Washington, 2009 harvests represented only 28 percent of their 1970s peaks.19 20 21 Oregon employment in wood products in 2009 was less than half of what it was in 1990.22

Wildlife protection continued as well. The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan sought to protect ecosystem health, and produce a sustainable and environmentally-responsible resource yield.23 Similarly, the 1995 Habitat Conservation Plan for the Elliott State Forest of Oregon was designed to protect sensitive species during industrial operations.24 In 1999, Washington’s Forests and Fish Law imposed regulations on private landowners in order to protect sensitive fish habitats.25

Despite restrictive logging, federal support for biofuels advanced. The 1992 National Energy Policy Act encouraged renewables, and both the 1999 Executive Order 13134 and the 2000 Biomass Research and Development Act promoted research and use. The 2000 National Fire Plan involves utilizing woody biomass as both a thinning strategy and source of biofuel.26 2001 saw the creation of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.27 Between 2002 and 2005, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, Transportation Equity Act, Consolidated Appropriations Act, and National Energy Policy Act all provided support.28 The 2006 and 2007 State of the Union Addresses mentioned woody biomass as an alternative fuel source, and the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act set future mandatory renewable fuel standards.29

Looking Ahead to Biofuels

Northwest harvesting has increased since the Great Recession but is still as weak as it was following the Great Depression. After bottoming out in 2009, Oregon and Washington rebounded by 36 percent and 23 percent, respectively, by 2012.30 31 Housing starts have also shown an upward trend.32 However, the same environmental regulations and market competition exist as before the recession.

Currently, there are various public-private partnerships across the United States, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Coordinated Agricultural Projects (CAPs) Sustainable Bioenergy challenge area, to examine production of advanced biofuels.33 Sustainable Bioenergy CAPs are charged with facilitating the establishment of regional systems for the sustainable production of bioenergy and bio-based co-products that contribute significantly to reducing the national dependence on foreign oil; have net positive social, environmental, and rural economic impacts; and are integrated with existing agricultural systems.34

Figure 3: NARA Region with biomass availability. Natalie Martinkus, Washington State University.

NARA, supported by a $40 million USDA CAP grant awarded to Washington State University in 2011, is a collaboration between universities, government, and industry. NARA is examining the feasibility of a regional system for sustainable production of biojet fuel and bio-based products from forest residual and construction and demolition waste in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana (Figure 3). The Pacific Northwest, which has large quantities of forest residual feedstock, has been a global center of aviation innovation, with significant interest in developing renewable aviation fuels.35 While there are many alternative fuel options being developed for ground transportation and electricity generation, the aviation sector will rely on high energy-dense liquid fuels with the same technical characteristics as petroleum-based fuels for the next 20 to 30 years.36

In 2012, biofuels accounted for roughly 7 percent of total transportation fuel consumption. Ethanol, a first generation, or conventional, biofuel produced from corn starch, is the most significant biofuel in the United States, accounting for 94 percent of all biofuel production in 2012. Rounding out the remainder of biofuel usage is biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oils (e.g., soy oil), as well as animal fats, waste oils, and greases.37 In 2008, Pacific Ethanol built the first biorefinery in the Northwest at the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Oregon, which produces 40 million gallons of ethanol a year. Second-generation, or advanced, biofuels are made from cellulose, which is available from non-food crops and waste biomass such as corn stover, corncobs, straw, wood, wood by-products and forest residuals.38 ZeaChem built a 250,000 gallon demonstration cellulosic biorefinery at the Port of Morrow in 2010.

NARA’s focus is producing advanced liquid biofuels from isobutanol, an alcohol derived from cellulose. The possibilities for isobutanol are much greater than for conventional biofuels, because isobutanol is a hydrophobic compound, meaning it repels water. Ethanol is a hydrophilic compound, meaning it attracts water. Federal regulations allow for ethanol blends up to 10 percent to be sold for gasoline-powered engines.39 This limit is based on ethanol’s corrosive properties in engines. When refined into an advanced liquid biofuel, isobutanol is a renewable “drop in” fuel with a 25 to 30 percent greater energy density than ethanol that can be blended up to 50 percent.40 Furthermore, using forest residuals to produce isobutanol creates a market for a currently-undervalued resource, creates incentives for removing hazardous fuel loads from overgrown forests, and eliminates the food-versus-fuel debates surrounding corn-based ethanol.

Figure 4: NARA supply chain. Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, Washington State University.

To support a successful wood-based biofuels supply chain in the Pacific Northwest, NARA depends on a broad network of professionals, communities, and infrastructure. A wood-based biofuels supply chain involves feedstock harvesting, transportation by road and/or rail, mechanical size reduction and densification, pretreatment, conversion, refining, and final delivery to consumers at regional airports (Figure 4). Expected final consumers include the U.S. Air Force and commercial airlines. Key markets in the Pacific Northwest include the top three commercial airports: Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington, Portland International Airport in Oregon, and Spokane International Airport in Washington; and military bases in Washington includingMcChord Air Force Base (Tacoma), Naval Air Station (Whibey Island), and Fairchild Air Force Base (Spokane).

Figure 5: Depot/Conversion Site Model in the Western Montana Corridor. Source: Jon Potter, Washington State University.

The production of biojet fuel can occur at integrated biorefineries (IBRs) - high-capacity plants that convert raw slash or other woody residuals to biojet fuel, or through a distributed model that relies on depots. Depots receive forest residuals and construction and demolition waste, then mechanically process and ship it by rail or truck to facilities that produce isobutanol. NARA supply chain analysis is comparing centralized IBRs versus the distributed model. West of the Cascades, where the density of biomass is greater, having a centralized IBR makes sense. East of the Cascades, where forest residuals are more scattered, having a conversion facility fed by dispersed depots is more feasible.41 Figure 5 shows a conversion facility in Frenchtown, Montana being supplied by depots located closer to the feedstock supply. A fully-operational IBR taking in 770,000 bone dry tons (BDTs) a year will produce about 35 million gallons of biojet fuel a year.42 In 2009, SeaTac used 411.1 million gallons (mg) of fuel, Spokane used 13.1 mg, and McChord Air Force Base used 35 mg.43 Blending 34 million gallons of biojet at 50 percent with petroleum jet fuel would yield 68 million gallons of blended jet fuel.

To reduce capital expenditures, NARA is examining adaptive reuse of idle facilities, as well as co-location with operating facilities. Pulp and paper mills are suitable for IBRs and saw, plywood and chip mills could be utilized for depots. Historic timber communities often have such facilities zoned for industrial use, which may have connections to the electrical grid, onsite power production and waste water treatment facilities, and water, air, and/or toxic substance permits. A skilled workforce will be needed, and many resource-dependent communities have a labor force that is able to support IBR or depot activities. Should additional training be necessary, Walla Walla Community College has created the Bioenergy Operations degree program.44

Employment in the advanced biofuels industry is growing in North America. According to a 2013 report by Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), there were 159 companies producing advanced biofuels, along with 93 companies involved in the supply chain by providing feedstock, technology and infrastructure in the U.S. and Canada. The total production capacity in North America expanded from 490 million gallons in 2012 to one billion gallons in 2013.45 In examining both direct and indirect (construction, feedstock collection, engineers, retail, etc), E2 states in their 2012 report that a facility producing one million gallons of advanced biofuels a year generates 2.24 permanent jobs, 10.29 construction jobs, and nearly 15 indirect jobs.46 A Canadian report examining the economic impact of bioenergy (e.g., ethanol and biodiesel plants, pellet manufacturers, bio-heat facilities) found that the industry has a significant potential to bring positive benefits to small communities. The majority (72 percent) of bioenergy production facilities (operating or under construction) are in communities of less than 25,000 people.47 The Pacific Ethanol biorefinery in Boardman, Oregon has 40 permanent employees.

By taking action now, communities can be ready to work with investors entering the wood-based biofuels industry. An important first step for planners and economic developers is to inventory active and idle mills and refineries in their region, as well the associated infrastructure (e.g., proximity to rail, ports, pipelines, aviation facilities, etc). Communities can update comprehensive and economic development plans to emphasize a commitment to wood-based biofuels and renewable energy production. Furthermore, like the City of Gila Bend, Arizona, communities can develop renewable energy overlay zones that expedite the construction of new facilities or the modification of existing ones.48 The Oregon Department of Energy has developed a model ordinance for siting renewable energy projects that includes wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, cogeneration, and biofuel production plants, as well as electric power transmission and distribution lines.49

State and federal governments are providing multiple assistance opportunities. Oregon’s 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard created the Biomass Producer or Collector Tax Credit, providing tax credits for the production, collection, and transportation of biomass used for bioenergy and biofuels. Additional tax credits are available for facilities that manufacture products used exclusively for renewable energy resource generation and/or harvesting.51 Property in Oregon used to produce biofuels may be eligible for a property tax exemption, if located in a designated Renewable Energy Development Zone.52

In Washington, the Biofuels Production Tax Exemption extends state and local property tax relief to buildings, equipment and land used in the manufacturing of alcohol fuel, biodiesel, or biodiesel feedstocks for six years following the date operations begin. Washington also has a business and occupation tax credit of $5/green ton for forest-derived biomass sold or used for production of power, steam, heat, or biofuel. Sale and use of hog fuel or forest-derived biomass for production of power, steam, heat, or biofuel is exempt from retail sales and use taxes.53 The Biofuel Quality Program creates quality standards, and the Alternative Fuel Grant and Loan Program is available through the Washington Department of Commerce, providing assistance for bioenergy production, research, and market development.54 Federal incentives supporting the development of advanced biofuels include the Advanced Biofuel Production Grants and Loan Guarantees, the Advanced Biofuel Production Payments, and Advanced Energy Research Project Grants.55


Wood has always been crucial to the Pacific Northwest, and remains a key element for the future. It has been utilized for heat, power generation, building materials, and now as a feedstock for renewable biojet fuels. Timber-dependent communities, in many cases, have the infrastructure and equipment needed, and governments are providing a variety of incentives to support the emerging wood-based biofuels industry. Organizations like NARA are working to facilitate this transition, and communities are considering related planning and zoning for industrial adaptation. If all the pieces come together, the Pacific Northwest could embrace its timber-based history with optimism for a future of economic and community stimulation, while contributing to national energy sustainability and security.

Dr. Tamara Laninga, AICP, is the Bioregional Planning and Community Design (BIOP) program head at the University of Idaho, where she has worked since 2007. Dr. Laninga is on NARA’s education, outreach and sustainable measurements teams. Scott Millman is a graduate student in the Bioregional Planning and Community Design program at the University of Idaho, with an undergraduate degree in History. Kenzie Payne is a graduate student in the Bioregional Planning and Community Design program at the University of Idaho.


Research funded by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68005-304 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


  • Biomass: Any plant-derived organic matter (e.g., agricultural crops and crop wastes; wood and wood wastes and residues; aquatic plants; perennial grasses).56
  • Forest Residuals: trees and woody plants, including limbs, tops, needles, leaves, and other woody parts, grown in a forest, woodland, or rangeland environments, that are the byproducts of forest management.57
  • Biofuels: an alternative to petroleum-based liquid transportation fuels produced from renewable biomass sources.58
  • Conventional, or first generation, biofuels: made from sugar, starch, or vegetable oil. Corn, wheat, sugar, soybean and palm oil are commonly used as feedstock. Ethanol is the most common biofuel worldwide. Biodiesel is another example.
  • Advanced, or second and third generation, biofuels: made from non-corn starch, sugar, or lignocellulosic biomass. Non-food crops and waste biomass such as corn stover, corncobs, straw, wood, wood byproducts and forest residuals are the feedstock. Advanced biofuels include isobutanol, cellulosic ethanol, non-virgin oil based biodiesel and bio-synthetic gas.59





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Published in the December 2014/January 2015 Issue

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