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Carbon Washington’s core mission includes developing policies and raising awareness about climate solutions that can appeal to both sides of the political aisle.

During the Initiative 732 campaign for a revenue-neutral carbon tax we demonstrated this by securing endorsements from Republican party leaders including:

  • Sitting legislators Joe Fain, Mark Miloscia and Steve Litzow
  • Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton
  • Former State Attorney General Rob McKenna
  • Former U.S. Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz

These efforts proved that Republicans can actively support a carbon tax if provided with the information and time to understand a market-driven, non-regulatory approach to pricing carbon that doesn’t increase taxes.

The carbon tax conversation looks to be moving in a different direction this legislative session and in the upcoming initiative season, and that is OK. The climate movement, despite decades of hard work by many of us, is in its infancy and still finding its way forward. While Carbon Washington remains steadfast in its desire to put a meaningful price on carbon, we have also started examining other approaches to achieve carbon reduction that can attract bipartisan support.

One such idea that caught our attention last year was biochar. If you’re a climate wonk — but don’t know much about biochar — don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Very few people know about biochar, despite its being an at least 2,000-year-old practice for increasing the health of agricultural soils, with the added benefit of creating long-term carbon sequestration.

You can learn more about the environmental benefits of biochar by reading further in this blog. But first we want to describe our recent efforts to educate our state lawmakers about the benefits of producing and using it.

This project has been spearheaded by CarbonWA board member and volunteer lobbyist Greg Rock. Over the past year he organized a Sequestration Workgroup of over 40 scientific and academic experts, which researched and evaluated biochar and other potential carbon sequestration pathways. This legislative session Greg has met with over 50 legislators to explain what biochar is and how it presents a potential economic and environmental opportunity for our state, as well as advocating for a carbon tax.

This outreach effort yielded three significant outcomes: First, we believe the legislature is now more educated than the general public about biochar. Second, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege decided to host a 30-minute educational work session in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee on biochar. (Watch the presentation by Pacific Northwest National Labs researcher Jim Amonette. Slides here.)

And finally, Rep. Matt Shea (R-4th) introduced House Joint Memorial 4014, which supports further biochar research. While a small effort, the memorial has garnered a large bipartisan sponsorship group from all over the state. We view this as an encouraging sign that cooperation among the two political parties on beneficial climate policy is possible.

HJM 4014 Sponsors:
Shea (R-4th), Fitzgibbon (D-34th), Wilcox (R-2nd), Tharinger (D-24th), Dent (R-13th), Doglio (D-22nd),
Buys (R-42nd), Fey (D-27th), Manweller (R-13th), Peterson (D-21st), Maycumber (R-7th), Ryu (D-32nd), Nealey (R-16th), Pettigrew (D-37th), Johnson (R-14th), Springer (D-45th), Haler (R-8th), Lytton (D-40th), Stokesbary (R-31st), Gregerson (D-33rd), Smith (R-10th), Goodman (D-45th), Muri (R-28th), Kloba (D-1st), Mcbride (D-48th)

Olympia insiders would tell you it is rare to see many of these legislators sponsoring the same thing, and that is one of the exciting aspects of biochar. Biochar has the ability to bridge traditional political and geographical divides because it has a little something to offer everyone by combining climate benefits with soil benefits for agricultural.

Carbon Washington would like to thank Rep. Shea for being the prime sponsor of this memorial.  Rep. Shea, who represents the Spokane Valley, was quick to recognize the potential benefit of biochar for rural communities. He not only encouraged us to push forward with this memorial but provided us with the resources we needed to make it happen. Rep. Shea and the political committee staff he assigned to work with us were incredibly helpful and supportive. Rep. Fitzgibbon, who joined early on as the 2nd signer, was also instrumental in helping us achieve this broad bipartisan list of co-sponsors.

We appreciate all the representatives who co-sponsored as well as the many senators who took the time to meet with us and learn more about biochar. We would also like to thank the House and Senate Agricultural and Natural Resources committee chairs — Sen. Van de Wege for hosting a work session on biochar, and Rep. Blake for holding a public hearing on HJM 4014. At the public hearing HJM 4014 received sign-in support from Carbon Washington, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Ecology, the Department of Commerce, the Washington Forest Protection Association, and the Association of Washington Businesses.

So what the heck is biochar?  

HJM 4014 defines biochar as a carbon rich solid produced for non-combustion purposes by the thermochemical conversion of organic matter.

To put it a bit more plainly, biochar is charcoal. It’s produced from biomass, not fossil fuels, and specifically manufactured to provide environmental services (instead of fueling barbeques). Biochar is typically produced by heating woody biomass in a low-oxygen environment to remove the volatiles (hydrogen) while leaving behind about half of the carbon as charcoal.

Typical technologies used for biochar production include gasification, pyrolysis, or retrofitting burners in existing biomass fired boilers. The production process is primarily powered by the biomass feedstock itself and can produce a variety of outputs — including liquid or gaseous fuels, heat, and electricity — in addition to biochar.

Biochar is an age-old practice

Biochar started gaining attention when archaeologists discovered that pre-Colombian Amazonians over 2,000 years ago were producing charcoal from biomass and adding it to their farm lands to create plots of carbon-rich soils called terra preta. This translates to “black earth,” which is appropriate, as they literally changed the color of their soil. These ancient people had discovered that adding charcoal to their farms created a host of agricultural benefits. This discovery was exciting from a climate perspective because much of that carbon still remained in the ground 2,000 years later. This would suggest that adding biochar to Washington State farms today could create agricultural productivity benefits that persist on a generational time scale, while also creating long-term carbon sequestration.

How does biochar sequester carbon?

Trees or other biomass absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere as they grow. The absorbed carbon combines with oxygen and hydrogen plus a little bit of nitrogen and other elements to form wood. After the tree dies or is cut down to be used the wood eventually decays, or is burned, returning the carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 or methane (CH4) (if it decays without air). The rate of decomposition depends on the type of biomass and the environmental conditions it is exposed to. Typically, almost all the carbon in biomass has returned to the atmosphere within 100 years after being deposited onto the landscape.

However, if you instead heat the waste biomass to remove the volatile hydrogen (which has energy value) you are left with a carbon-rich biochar that is far more stable than the original biomass. The carbon in the biochar has a much longer decomposition half-life and will remain in the soil for hundreds or even thousands of years. This is a long-term biosequestration process which uses plants to absorb carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then stores that carbon on the planet as stable biochar.

But biochar isn’t just deposited onto the landscape as a means of disposal. Biochar is a high-value product that is being manufactured and sold for commercial purposes. Currently Washington State hosts two biochar manufacturers. AgEnergy focuses on making biochar from waste agricultural products like wheat straw. Biochar Supreme makes designer biochars. Designer biochars are produced using a variety of different feedstocks and production techniques to optimize its benefits for specific applications.

No biochar is the same and quality is important to the environmental benefits it can deliver. High-quality biochar is typically 70-90% carbon, and its stability is a function of having a low hydrogen-to-carbon ratio. Some low-quality products contain a lot of ash, which is the result of complete combustion. These are currently still being marketed and sold as biochar but won’t deliver the same benefits, increasing the need for standards like the International Biochar Initiative’s published standard 2.1

The non-climate benefits of biochar

Biochar is being studied and utilized for a wide range of applications. One of the core beneficial properties of biochar is that it is a very porous material. One pound of biochar typically has over 30 acres of surface area! Currently one of its commercial uses is for pollution remediation work. Whether cleaning up coal mines or polluted water running off our roadways, the absorptive quality of biochar is already recognized as a powerful natural product for removing pollution from soil and water.  

Much of the current academic research focuses on using biochar as an agricultural soil amendment. It has been found to increase the water retention of soil, reduce fertilizer loss, and create a home for healthy microbes. Additionally, biochar can increase the pH of soil, making acidic soils more basic, a desirable agricultural trait. While the effects are crop and soil specific, biochar amendments can produce higher yields with less water and fertilizer inputs for long periods of time after first application.

 

Biochar is also used in the cattle, manure, and compost industries. Adding biochar to compost piles can increase the rate of decomposition while significantly reducing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Combining manure or compost with biochar appears to enhance the benefits of both products when they’re applied to soil. Pre-charging biochar with nutrients is important, to avoid absorbing them from the soil after application. Recent studies are also finding benefits from feeding biochar directly to cows. Like activated charcoal, which can improve peoples’ digestion, biochar appears to create digestive benefits for cows, with studies finding 25% increases in live weight gain and 22% reductions in methane emissions. And —eureka! — the resulting manure comes pre-mixed with nutrient charged biochar.

Biochar has also been a topic of interest for the U.S. Forest Service. Similar to agricultural applications, foresters view biochar as a potential soil amendment for reforestation efforts and a way to enhance soil quality in struggling forests. They are also very excited about the prospect of being able to provide feedstocks to this blossoming industry. Continued expansion of biochar markets could add economic value to small roundwoods and forest debris removed to reduce fire risks. Normally the waste wood from these forest health projects is simply piled and burned, as it has little economic value. Pilot projects are now gasifying it to produce and sell biochar, thus helping to offset the forest health treatment costs.

Biochar deserves more attention and research

Biochar offers a number of overlapping environmental and rural economic benefits. Washington has the academic resources to do significant biochar research, an already developing industry, and the forest and farm resources that make this topic particularly interesting here. We know that greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are reaching dangerous levels. We also know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere enters our oceans and causes dangerous acidification. But it is nice to know that getting that carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, converting it into biochar, and adding it to our soils can also create agricultural and forestry benefits. Improving soil health with biochar is a way to share the cost of getting excess CO2 out of the atmosphere, store that absorbed carbon for the long term, and help slow global warming.

The costs would be high, and no quantity of carbon sequestration will impact the problem if we don’t first address emissions, but this 2,000-year-old process could play a part in helping reverse some of the damages we are continuing to cause to our atmosphere. Regardless of whether HJM 4014 passes, we are happy that this effort has helped raise awareness about biochar and that we were able to generate bipartisan interest in the topic.

Please consider supporting Carbon Washington to help us continue our unique research and outreach efforts.