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Originally published Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 6:54 PM

Environmentalists cast doubts on biofuel plans

Some environmental groups expressed skepticism Wednesday that wood can be turned into fuel without causing unforeseen environmental consequences. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced millions in grants to the UW and WSU to research such biofuels.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Jet fuel from wood scraps. Gasoline — or something that acts just like it in your car — from poplar trees. Sound too good to be true?

A few environmental groups expressed skepticism Wednesday that wood can be turned into fuel without causing unforeseen environmental consequences. But university researchers say they've learned from the woes of the corn ethanol industry, and believe they can avoid the potential pitfalls of making fuel from plants.

On Wednesday, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced an award of $80 million in grants for the University of Washington and Washington State University to kick-start a biofuels industry from wood in the Pacific Northwest.

While jets roared into the sky behind him at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Vilsack talked of creating thousands of new jobs by making jet fuel with scrap wood and poplars. And he said he believed the industry could take off in about five years.

Proceed with caution, environmental groups said.

"The history of energy is littered with promising ideas that never quite panned out in practice; and of ideas that seemed good in theory, but created big problems when they scaled up," Clark Williams-Derry, director of programs at the Seattle nonprofit Sightline Institute, said in an email.

"I'd like to see us be a little more skeptical of biofuels before we start subsidizing them this way," said Michal Rosenoer, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth's biofuels policy campaign.

The UW's slice of the grant, $40 million, will go to investigating the use of fast-growing poplar trees as a fuel. Between $4 million and $5 million of that money will be used to study whether poplar plantations can be grown sustainably, UW professor Richard Gustafson said.

The sustainability side of the grant has a number of different components, he said. For example, the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Institute in Montana will examine wildlife in poplar plantations. The University of Idaho will examine test plots of poplars, looking at runoff, soil impacts and the ability to sequester carbon. Researchers will even study the social impacts of creating biofuel refineries in Washington's rural communities.

"We'll have a sense of what the impacts are," he said. "We're trying really hard, before this becomes a big commercial operation."

One of the key questions is whether poplars can be grown on lands not already being used for agriculture.

GreenWood Resources, an Oregon company and one of the largest growers of poplars in the Northwest, is receiving $6.5 million of the grant money. Company President Jeff Nuss said GreenWood wants to grow poplars on "marginal lands" that can't be used for food production or for timber. It already grows poplars on such marginal lands in Chile.

Poplar is a favorite species because it is very adaptive to different types of climates and can grow 20 to 30 feet in height in two years, Nuss said.

The trees would be cut down to the stumps every three years, and then regrown from the stumps, Gustafson said. They would be bred selectively to improve their growing qualities but would not be genetically engineered.

Nuss said a previous study completed in 2000 identified 6 million acres in the Pacific Northwest suitable for growing poplars. In Wednesday's announcement, the UW said the grant would lay the foundation for five commercial biorefineries and the cultivation of 400,000 acres of poplars.

"It's worth being cautious before racing ahead with 400,000-acre poplar plantations," said Williams-Derry, of Sightline Institute, "no matter how enticing the idea appears in the short term."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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