Nukes, Trees, and Netanyahus

With all the controversy around Iran’s nuclear program, why aren’t America’s biggest timber players putting forth a much better deal?

Wait, what’s happening with Iran?

They want nuclear power plants. They say it’s not for making bombs, just keeping lightbulbs on. Nearly everyone in the world says, “Um, doubtful,” because of Iran’s shady reputation (see: state-sponsored terrorism). In recent decades, the U.S. has implemented sanctions to stifle Iran’s economy and prevent them from funding their nuclear program.

But recently, the Obama administration has been thinking about lifting those sanctions, effectively giving Iran the thumbs up to its nuclear program in exchange for a hand-shake promise that they’ll let us inspect their power plants to ensure no bombs are made. This has made a lot of people unhappy (not to mention freaked out!), but especially Israel, who has good reason to believe that Iran, like North Korea, will not comply with inspectors.

“That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 3 to a bipartisan US Congress, “It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons–lots of them.”

Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu

Why does Iran want nuclear energy?

That’s the billion dollar question. If their motives are as pure as they claim, nuclear energy is simply a means to an end.

“Controlling the unbridled fossil fuel consumption has become one of the main targets of the Iranian Government,” reported Dr. Seyed Ehsan Hosseini in a 2013 study published in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews entitled A Review on Green Energy Potentials in Iran.

But is nuclear energy really the best option? Some would say no.

“Nuclear energy is becoming yesterday’s news, both because of the push to harness renewable energy sources and also as a result of nuclear disasters,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor in an article challenging Iran’s obsessive focus on nuclear energy amidst a sea of better options. The same article went on to commend the U.S.’s main strategy to prevent a nuclear Iran–sanctions–which it claims “may boost Iran’s renewable energy efforts. Earlier this year, Iranian officials hinted at just that, with the country’s energy minister calling for increased investment in renewable energy as a path forward in the face of less-than infinite fossil fuels supplies and the sanctions regime.”

Is another renewable energy option on the table in current talks between US and Iran?

Not really. So far, the nuclear Iran controversy has been limited to a “Yes” or “No” opinion on letting them improve their program or not. Though there are many critics, few have explored whether there is a better option altogether.

President Obama pointed out this exact hole in Netanyahu’s harsh critique of the current deal, “The Prime Minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives.”

In a strange coincidence, however, the American timber industry has recently been booming with BioMass fuel production in the form of wood pellets. In fact, Georgia now boasts the world’s largest wood pellet plant, Georgia BioMass, which can produce over 750,000 tons of pellets annually.

In Iran, the soil is ripe for the American industry to expand. “Around 7% of Iran′s area has been covered with forest,” reports Dr. Hosseini in the Review on Green Energy Potentials in Iran, “The byproducts from Iran’s forests, which are located in the Alborz Mountain in the north and Zagros Mountain in the west, have an excellent capability for biofuel production…The estimated area of these jungles exceeds 1.9 million hectares which could be a great source of renewable energy.”

Building industrial infrastructure for wood pellet production could take several years. In the mean time, however, American companies such as Georgia BioMass may find in Iran a new customer.

Could the American timber industry produce enough wood pellets for Iran?

Yes and no. It’s feasible, but would require efficient collaboration within the US forest industry and also between big investors around the world.

"Pellets hand" by Tom Bruton
“Pellets hand” by Tom Bruton

If Secretary of State John Kerry proposed a deal that contracted private American BioMass mills to export wood pellets to Iran, it could mean lots of work for lots of people.

Our mills would be strapped with the responsibility of quadrupling their production. European and American investors would need to collaborate on improving Iran’s BioMass power plant infrastructure. And, to top it all off, such a deal would essentially force Iran to reduce their carbon footprint by an unfathomable quantity.

It would be a nightmare win for everyone.

That is, of course, if Iran’s pursuit of alternative energy sources are, as they claim, pure and without ulterior motive (i.e. E=MC²).

So why isn’t BioMass power via wood pellets being proposed?

Because American timber companies are too myopically focused on their empire to realize the opportunity they’re missing. Rick Holley and Doyle Simmons, CEOs of our nation’s largest timber companies, Plum Creek Timber and Weyerhaeuser, respectively, have done a tremendous job weathering economic blunders since 2008, but they are failing to capitalize on an opportunity that would send their companies (and perhaps the entire timber industry) into a new stratosphere of success.

Can you blame them, though? The timber industry has been pelted with nothing but negative press since the 80’s from the green movement over a cornucopia of allegations concerning environmental damage caused by timber harvesting. With righteous indignation, the timber industry has responded with their chin up, pouring millions of dollars and resources into programs that showcase the environmental and carbon-responsibility of their industry.

With tragic irony, however, the American timber industry is presently missing an opportunity to make a definitive statement about the renewable superiority of their products on the global market.

Iran wants nuclear power because nuclear power was popular when they realized their fossil fuel empire wouldn’t last forever. That was over twenty years ago. Nowadays, dozens of renewable energy sources should be conceivable options.

And a new question has risen: Which source of renewable energy will emerge as victorious on the global scene? Should the leaders of the American timber industry heed the clarion call to action, we might all be growing trees in 2020, not sifting through the radioactive wreckage of a nuclear fallout.

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