Wooden federal buildings? Senate bill seeks to boost timber.

Another Senate bill would have EPA assess life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from biomass electricity production.

Politico E&E

he federal government could give preference to contractors who use wood as their primary material in construction of public buildings, if a bipartisan bill proposed by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon becomes law.

Merkley, a Democrat, proposed the “Mass Timber Federal Buildings Act,” S. 4149, to favor the use of “mass timber” in construction of federal buildings, including on military installations.

The bill’s introduction follows comments Merkley made on the topic at a hearing last week with Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. The Democrat introduced the bill with Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho).

Mass timber is comprised of panels of wood that are nailed or glued together in a way that gives the product load-bearing capabilities. The tallest mass timber building in the world is 25 stories in Milwaukee.

The legislation would give a contracting preference to companies that use innovative wood production in construction of buildings, including mass timber that’s increasingly being used in tall buildings.

A separate incentive would apply for the use of wood products sourced from restoration practices, fire mitigation or underserved forest owners.

In a news release, Merkley said mass timber in Oregon “is already a key piece of the puzzle to solving our nation’s affordable housing crisis and tackling climate chaos.”

The bill is endorsed by timber industry groups and forest owner associations, as well as a mass timber promotional group including the Oregon Department of Forestry, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University.

Merkley pointed the merits of mass timber at a budget hearing last week with Moore, whose agency has been encouraging the practice.

Oregon is a leader in the movement, Merkley said, but the industry faces hurdles in being able to supply mills and in local building codes that don’t allow such construction.

By targeting federal projects, Merkley aims to work around some of the local building code complications that wouldn’t apply on a military base, for instance.

Changing state or local building codes is a long task that requires state-by-state action, said Nick Smith, public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council, representing wood product companies.

More than 2,000 mass timber buildings are either built or in planning and design phases, Moore said at the hearing. But he noted that most of what is harvested on national forests is small-diameter wood that’s of little commercial value and isn’t used to make mass timber. He added that researchers are looking into how to change that.

Using wood in construction is less carbon intensive than using iron, Merkley said. The bill also includes a provision requiring the federal government to conduct a whole-building life-cycle assessment of the carbon impact of wood building construction.

Booker’s biomass bill

Merkley’s bill is part of a broader discussion about finding new uses for timber, particularly wood taken from national forests. Even in places where potential supplies are generous, Forest Service officials say, mill capacity is sometimes low or nonexistent due to plant closures.

And while some products such as mass timber have wide support in Congress and among outside groups, other uses such as burning wood for energy are much more contentious.

Merkley noted the biomass energy industry positively at last week’s hearing, but on Wednesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced legislation, S. 4153, that would require EPA to assess the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of producing electricity from biomass when crafting relevant rules and regulations.

Booker’s bill would also require an assessment of other impacts of wood pellet facilities, including dust and air pollution and how the effects are distributed along racial and socioeconomic lines.

“Low-income and minority communities often bear the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards and injustices, and the harms from forest biomass facilities are no exception,” Booker said in a news release.

While the wood pellet industry in the Southeast U.S. is built largely to supply electric generating plants in Europe, U.S. companies have been turning to forest biomass as a source as well.

Dominion Energy, based in Virginia, converted coal-burning plants in Altavista, Hopewell and Southampton to woody biomass in 2013. That’s enough to power about 38,000 homes, the utility said.

The conversions reduce emissions and support about 300 jobs in logging, chipping and hauling of wood that’s leftover from timber operations, Dominion said.

Booker’s proposal contrasts with a requirement from Congress that EPA and other agencies craft regulations and actions around biomass energy that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy,” a provision that’s appeared in appropriations bills for several years.

Some congressional Democrats have tried to change the provision to remove the assumption that energy from biomass is carbon neutral and leave the question to scientists.