Op-Ed – Biochar: Bipartisan Solution for Rural Montana

by Andy Schwab

There are not many climate solutions that unite Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But biochar does because it’s a practical way to improve soil health, increase water retention in soil, create new markets for farmers and foresters, remove carbon from the atmosphere, and create jobs and opportunities in rural Montana.

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance produced for use in soil by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen. The process can also produce oil and sugar to be processed into biofuels. Biochar is produced in big and small facilities across the country. In Montana, biochar facilities stretch from western to eastern Montana.  

Much of the interest in biochar stems from its broad benefits in agriculture and forestry. A growing body of research demonstrates that appropriately designed biochar can build the health and productivity of soil by enhancing its structure, fertility, and capacity to absorb heavy downpours for later use by thirsty crops. It can also be mixed with animal manure to produce a carbon rich compost.

Biochar offers new sources of income to Montana farmers and foresters. It can create markets for combustible materials that need to be removed from forests to reduce wildfire risks, as well as grass crops grown on land that is not well suited to grain crops. It’s also an incredible way to add value to waste products from sawmills and forestry.

Biochar production can create jobs and opportunities across rural Montana. The potential rural economic development benefits are particularly significant for new systems designed to coproduce biochar and low-carbon cellulosic biofuels from biomass. 

Biochar also has climate benefits. Its unique promise lies in its longevity. Centuries-old biochar from prairie fires is a significant portion of the organic matter in Montana’s agricultural soils. Crop residue left on soil decomposes in a few years, releasing its carbon into the atmosphere. But biomass converted to biochar at high temperatures remains in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years. It will not be released by a fire, a change in farming practices, or a change in plans. It’s there for the long haul.  

The quasi-permanence of biochar has made it the leader in the market for long-term carbon removal, in which corporations pay for offsets to their emissions. It accounts for 89% of engineered carbon removal credits, reflecting purchases by Microsoft and other major companies at rates of over $300 or more per ton of biochar. That has the potential to provide a new and significant economic boost to rural Montana. 

Biochar’s broad benefits have attracted bipartisan support among policymakers. Biochar supporters in Congress include Republican Senators John Thune and Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senators Sherrod Brown and Montana’s own Jon Tester. 

They have joined together to introduce the Biochar Research Network Act. It would expand federally funded biochar research to close critical knowledge gaps and inform farmers on which types of biochar will have positive results in their soils and circumstances. NCAT is pushing Congress to include the Act in the next farm bill. In addition, Congressional appropriators need to do their part by funding biochar research in the annual USDA appropriations bill. 

Supporting biochar just makes sense. It’s the most cost-effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, with the added benefits of enhancing agricultural productivity and strengthening rural economies. With broad bipartisan support, biochar offers Congress too great an opportunity to squander. 

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Biochar Policy Project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology – 2024

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