The largest and most comprehensive study yet done on the effect of biofuel production from West Coast forests has concluded that an emphasis on bioenergy would increase carbon dioxide emissions from these forests at least 14 percent, if the efficiency of such operations is optimal.

The findings are contrary to assumptions and some previous studies that suggest biofuels from this source would be carbon-neutral or even reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In this research, that wasn’t true in any scenario.

The study was published in Nature Climate Change, by scientists from the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and other institutions in Germany and France. It was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

During the past four years, the study examined 80 forest types in 19 eco-regions in Oregon, Washington and California, ranging from temperate rainforests to semi-arid woodlands. It included both public and private lands and different forest management approaches.

“On the West Coast, we found that projected forest biomass removal and use for bioenergy in any form will release more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than current forest management practices,” said Tara Hudiburg, a doctoral candidate at OSU and lead author on the study.

“Most people assume that wood bioenergy will be carbon-neutral, because the forest re-grows and there’s also the chance of protecting forests from carbon emissions due to wildfire,” Hudiburg said. “However, our research showed that the emissions from these activities proved to be more than the savings.”

The only exception to this, the researchers said, was if forests in high fire-risk zones become weakened due to insect outbreaks or drought, which impairs their growth and carbon sequestration, as well as setting the stage for major fires. It’s possible some thinning for bioenergy production might result in lower emissions in such cases if several specific criteria are met, they said.

“Until now there have been a lot of misconceptions about impacts of forest thinning, fire prevention and biofuels production as it relates to carbon emissions from forests,” said Beverly Law, a professor in the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society and co-author of this study.

“If our ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, producing bioenergy from forests will be counterproductive,” Law said. “Some of these forest management practices may also have negative impacts on soils, biodiversity and habitat. These issues have not been thought out very fully.”

The study examined thousands of forest plots with detailed data and observations, considering 27 parameters, including the role of forest fire, emissions savings from bioenergy use, wood product substitution, insect infestations, forest thinning, energy and processes needed to produce biofuels, and many others.