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Could Montana achieve carbon emissions reductions with better wild fire management? 

While carbon emissions are “rarely included in carbon policy discussions,” it is an option that could reduce carbon emissions in Montana in a less costly way in terms of jobs, incomes and economic production.  The suggestion comes from University of Montana economists, Patrick M. Barkey and Todd A.  Morgan, in an article they wrote for the Montana Business Quarterly. Barkey is the Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) and Morgan is director of forest research at the BBER.

Faced with the challenge, under the Clean Power Plan, of having to reduce carbon emissions to a greater degree than any other state, Montana weighed the impacts of retiring coal fired generators, the source of a significant amount of Montana’s carbon emissions.  While the Clean Power Plan has since been suspended, the issue is not likely to go away.  The economists suggest that while closing coal-fired generators can “pencil out as a means of reducing carbon emissions”, it does not consider the substantial benefits of “those still- functioning power plants to both its electrical grids and to local economies.”

“The emission data clearly show that emissions from wildfires –both CO2 emissions as well as those of other pollutants –are significant in Montana.  We have compared those emissions to coal because so much policy attention has been paid to the latter as a means of achieving desired reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases…

“Expanding policy options to include actions aimed at curbing wildfire emissions might bring about C02 emissions reductions at a lower cost to the economy and at the same time make improvements to public health,” said Barkey and Morgan.

The authors concede, “The measurement of CO2 emissions from wildfires in Montana presents a more challenging problem than measuring emissions from the small number of coal-fired electric generators in the state…” because fires are highly variable and unpredictable.  Measurements that are used are based on modeling.

“Since 2003, an average of almost 300,000 acres per year have burned statewide in both wildfires and prescribed fires.  Those fires resulted in suppression costs –nationally running at about $2 billion dollars per year…  And case studies suggest that suppression represents as little as 5% of true wildfire costs ” in terms of rehabilitation, health impacts and other indirect costs.

Those fires also produce other emissions, which can be harmful to health – pollutants such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, micron-sized particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds.  To say that wildfires degrade air quality is an understatement.  Except for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, emissions from this list of pollutants because of wildfires are several orders of magnitude higher than those from coal.  Also, since wildfires in Montana tend to be closer to more populated areas than are coal fired generators, they “can play a role in the relative health impacts of emissions.”  Being able to reduce those emissions through better wild fire management would be an additional benefit.

The authors said that emissions from fires do not necessarily correspond with the number of acres burned, because carbon emissions correlate with the amount of biomass consumed per square meter of fire.  “Model -based estimates of CO2 emissions from wildfires in Montana for the past 13 years vary between of 16,849 thousand tons in 2003 and a low of 259 thousand tons in 2014.”

Highest CO2 emissions were in 2003 and 2007, when CO2 emissions exceeded 16 million tons. 

“Overall, coal accounts for roughly half of our energy related CO2 emissions in Montana.”

Between 1998-2013, coal-fired generation emitted an average of 19.2 million tons of CO2 each year. 

Only in two years did wildfire emissions approach that level; however, those admissions are concentrated over just two or three months of the year.