Image: George W. Bush discusses ethanol
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Bush speaks about cellulosic ethanol made from spruce wood chips during a tour of a biotechnology company in Franklinton, N.C., in February. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell says the U.S. should replace 15 percent of its gasoline with ethanol made from wood and brush cleared from forests.
updated 9/7/2007 11:06:49 PM ET 2007-09-08T03:06:49

The U.S. Forest Service chief is proposing replacing 15 percent of the nation's gasoline with ethanol made from wood, while doubling the amount of carbon dioxide emissions absorbed by public and private forests.

"These are ambitious goals, and they would take a concerted national effort to reach," Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell said in remarks prepared for a speech before the Society of Environmental Journalists Friday night in San Francisco.

They also appear contradictory. But such a plan is consistent with President Bush's goal cutting gasoline use by 20 percent while expanding reliance on ethanol, which is a central part of his energy policy. He has sent Congress a proposal mandating the use of 35 billion gallons a year of "alternative" fuels, mostly ethanol, by 2017.

Kimbell said that "with the technologies now becoming available, we could replace as much as 15 percent of our current gasoline consumption with ethanol from wood -- and not just any wood, but wood that is not now being used for other purposes."

In 2006, motorists used 143 billion gallons of gasoline, 136 billion gallons of which was produced by U.S. refineries.

Bio-fuel from small trees, underbrush
Kimbell said small-diameter trees and underbrush can be used to heat homes, generate electricity and power cars.

"Forests can provide renewable bio-fuels that can replace fossil fuels like coal and oil," Kimbell said. "This will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere while diminishing our dependence on foreign fuel sources."

The Forest Service estimates that the nation's forests -- both public and private -- offset about 10 percent of carbon emissions in the United States. "I propose a national effort to double that amount by 2020," Kimbell said.

While carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas, amounts of it have been increasing sharply since the beginning of the industrial age. It is produced by fossil fuels burned in manufacturing plants, motor vehicles and power plants.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide, but the science for measuring how much is unsettled. The Forest Service manages 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands -- an area equivalent to the size of Texas.

Fire prevention a source of fuel?
Asked how the nation could churn out vastly more wood for ethanol while rapidly growing more forests, Kimbell's spokeswoman, Allison Stewart, said in an interview Friday night that the wood for ethanol would come mainly from brush that the Bush administration's "healthy forests" law now requires to be thinned to prevent wildfires.

"A lot of our forests across our country are unhealthy because they're overstocked. There's a lot of unhealthy underbrush," Stewart said. "That's where we're talking about getting the bio-energy from. It's from the reduction of flammable fuels in the forests -- instead of just burning it up in piles or grinding it up."

At the same time, Stewart said, the Forest Service is "doing a lot of replanting of new forests, where there are no forests now." Most of those, she added, are in areas cleared out by wildfires, floods and other calamities of nature.

The Forest Service already is teaming with the nonprofit National Forest Foundation to allow consumers to participate in a voluntary program to "offset" their carbon dioxide emissions by making charitable contributions that will be used to plant trees and do other work to improve national forests. Several such reforestation projects have been identified in the Custer National Forest in Montana and South Dakota and in the Payette National Forest in Idaho.

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