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New Biorefinery Research Adds Bite To Reforestation Bark

Reforestation could help sustain global oil and gas production — or cut it off at the knees, if new tree-based biorefinery research pans out.

Reforestation has been touted as an effective strategy for addressing the climate crisis. That’s all well and good, but reforestation also provides oil and gas stakeholders with an opportunity to continue pumping out old reserves and exploring for new ones. After all, if tree-based carbon offsets are all that inexpensive, quick, and effective, then what’s the point of sealing off the fossil riches that lie beneath the surface of the earth?

reforestation trees biobased chemicals

Reforestation could help the global petroleum industry…or hurt it, as the case may be (poplar tree by Jay Chen, Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

Reforestation As A Trojan Horse

Signs are already emerging that petroleum producers could view reforestation as an opportunity to keep producing rather than cutting back. In the past few months Respol, BP, and Equinor announced big plans to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, but all three plans rely heavily on reducing or offsetting emissions from their oil and gas operations.

As another red flag, the idea has caught the attention of US President* Donald Trump, who proposed a new “trillion” tree endeavor that amounts to little more than forever mopping up an ongoing spill instead of actually solving the problem.

For that matter, various initiatives of the United Nations already racked up 4 billion new trees planted by 2009, and yet the climate crisis has continued apace despite all that effort.

No, The Other Kind Of Trojan Horse

On the other hand, if petroleum producers embrace the whole tree planting thing as a way to offset their carbon emissions, it could be a case of being careful what you wish for.

Europe is already swimming in a surplus of wood due to shrinkage in the paper industry, and researchers there are racing to find new ways to extract value from it.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at new biorefinery research from KU Leuven, where an intedisciplinary team is developing an economically competitive system for converting birch tree wood into plant-based chemicals.

For now the team is focusing on producing printing ink, as well as bio-ethanol, from a specially tailored carbohydrate pulp.

So far the system has passed a financial analysis. The next steps include working with their  ink company partner to scale up the process, and exploring ways to produce other chemicals and products.

Reforestation Is The Answer

That research project may sound rather modest, but it should give nightmares to oil and gas stakeholders.

ExxonMobil and other leading producers have been doubling down on their petrochemical business as a hedge against declining demand for petroleum fuel, but biobased sources are already edging into the market for plastics and other hydrocarbon products.

So far, biobased products have been competing with petrochemical products primarily on an ethical basis, where bulk buyers and individual consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainability.

The KU Leuven research and others like it indicate that bottom line competition from biobased sources could also heat up, and that would pull the rug out from under the petrochemical strategy.

As an extra gut-punch to fossil fuel stakeholders, the KU Leuven team estimates that their biorefinery system provides for a smaller carbon footprint compared to fossil sources.

All of this dovetails with the biofuel area, where the dream of producing biofuel from trees is still alive.

In past years, that dream has been bundled up with mass deforestation. However, the newfound enthusiasm for planting brand new forests out of thin air gives rise to the potential for preserving diverse, old growth forests and relying primarily on new growth for commercial development.

In A World…Where Reforestation Has More Value Than Drilling

For all the juicy details about the new KU Leuven research, check out their study in the journal Science under the title, “A sustainable wood biorefinery for low–carbon footprint chemicals production.

Aside from the financial calculations in the study, other factors suggest that reforestation will ultimately be the enemy of petroleum producers, not their friend.

Vast new swaths of managed forest would provide biobased chemical producers with the opportunity to tailor their feedstock to achieve maximum efficiency. The potential for sports and recreation could also add value to the operation of managed forests.

Waste from agricultural operations — including fruit trees, nut trees, berries, and grape vines — offer another potential for adding value to the business of growing lignin for biobased chemicals.

There’s also a community relations aspect, as managed forests could build local economies by creating permanent jobs while making positive contributions to the local environment.

As opposed to, you know, contributing negative impacts to the local environment and public health.

Just saying.

Meanwhile, auto manufacturers and other leading plastics buyers have been licking their chops in anticipation of the day when biobased products will free them from dependence on fossil sources.

Ford has been a leader in that field, so stay tuned, CleanTechnica is checking in with the company to see if it has any new wood products up its sleeve this year.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo: Poplar tree (credit: Jay Chen, Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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