You may have missed the news story over the holidays, but California is currently experiencing the country’s worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Over 150 million pounds of methane have leaked from a natural gas storage facility in California since October, and the problem can’t be fixed for months. This leak especially bad for climate change because methane traps 25 times as much heat in the atmosphere as  as carbon dioxide does. The human impact is more immediate: 2,000 people have been evacuated from their homes because of health dangers and local schools have hazmat suit necessary to touch wood fuel

Natural gas advocates often describe it as a cleaner fuel than oil since it emits less carbon dioxide at the time of combustion. But this disaster disputes the “clean” label. How can  we accept a fuel as “clean” when it has the ability to cause such significant harm? The California leak is from just one faulty safety valve. How many valves must there be across the natural gas pipeline system in the state, or in the US?

No fuel is benign, but some fuels – like wood – are a whole lot less risky than others. Look at the advantages of wood: Bulk wood pellets come from locally harvested wood and are shipped within the region. They aren’t extracted far away and then brought in by pipeline. They aren’t volatile or poisonous. There are far fewer opportunities for things to go wrong along the delivery chain from extraction to manufacturing to delivery to use.

From blogs to The New York Times, much is being said about the carbon impact of using wood for energy—without much distinction between using it for heat or electricity generation. Yet when it comes to carbon, they are worlds apart.

Fully accounting for the carbon impact of using wood as fuel is very complicated, and blanket statements that assume all energy from wood is equal are ignoring critical distinctions between wood as a heating fuel, and wood used to generate electricity.

The Northern Forest Center specifically champions modern wood heat because—in the context of the Northeast—generating heat from wood via highly efficient primary heating systems is a triple winner, producing reliable, local fuel at a stable price; saving money and creating jobs for rural communities; and reducing net atmospheric carbon dioxide over time. Ideally, wood heat is sourced and produced close to where it is used, at a scale that fits within the carrying capacity of the region’s forests.

As you well know modern wood heat presents an extraordinary opportunity for Northern New England and New York. Local heat keeps money in local communities, creates jobs in forestry and manufacturing, cuts heating bills, helps keep forests as forests, decreases carbon dioxide emissions over time, and more.

What you may not know is that the Center’s work is about more than just putting boilers in basements in demonstration projects: it’s really about transforming the region’s energy economy. This vision keeps us going when obstacles arise, and it’s why we’re so intent on helping build a sustainable market for modern wood heating systems.

It’s impossible not to notice this season’s low oil prices. In the wood heat world, where the easiest way to promote a fuel switch is (arguably) to emphasize cost savings, this isn’t the terrific news it is for people whose oil bills have dropped. On the other hand, it gives us an opportunity to look at oil and wood cost trends and to highlight some of the other reasons that modern wood heat makes sense.