Dodge the Pellet, Spare the Forest | Ecology Action Centre

Dodge the Pellet, Spare the Forest

Op-ed by Raymound Plourde, originally published in the Chronical Herald, February 24, 2020

Large-scale biomass plant should be quickly and categorically rejected.

The recent announcement by the provincial government proposing to build six relatively small biomass heating systems for six public buildings has reignited the debate over the use of forest biomass (wood chips and pellets) as a fuel source. 

So has a recent news article about a foreign business promoter’s sketchy grand idea of a giant pellet plant to produce huge quantities of industrial wood pellets for European biomass power generating stations. Although both involve the use of forest biomass, they are worlds apart in terms of their environmental impacts and presumed benefits.  

Ecology Action Centre is strongly against the use of forest biomass as a fuel for electricity generation, which is inherently inefficient and drives indiscriminate clearcutting as well as significant atmospheric pollution. We have called for the closure of the big Nova Scotia Power biomass electricity plants at Port Hawkesbury and Brooklyn and a ban on foreign exports of biomass. Nevertheless, we have given a cautious and highly qualified nod of approval to the government’s plan for six small wood heating systems. In doing so, we recognize that it was a) a recommendation of the Lahey forestry report which we support and want to see fully implemented as soon as possible, and b) that local sawmills and woodlot owners are hurting after the closure of Northern Pulp and need to find places to sell their residuals or so-called “waste wood” byproduct. 

Under the condition that the feedstock is sourced only from local sawmill residuals and silviculture thinning and that the wood-burning furnaces are high-efficiency (70 per cent-plus), these projects can help provide a local market for forestry workers who need it and will displace some use of fossil fuels. 

Make no mistake about it: burning anything releases carbon, but high-efficiency space heating of this kind at the small, local scale is a far cry from going whole hog into the biomass nightmare scenario: large-scale biomass harvesting for exports to feed insatiable foreign electric power plants. This would be the worst possible thing we could do with and to our forests. It would be both a final assault and the final insult.  

We strongly oppose purpose-specific harvesting for biomass, especially clearcutting. This proposal would require continued, and possibly expanded, large-scale clearcutting of our forests which have already been badly degraded and need time to recover, not more clearcutting. The global demand for industrial wood pellets was over 14 million tonnes in 2017 and is projected to grow significantly in the next decade. The U.K. has the biggest appetite, having converted massive coal-burning power plants into biomass burners instead. France and other European nations are following suit. Huge swaths of American forests along the U.S. East Coast are currently being stripped and pelletized to feed European power plants that release megatons of carbon they don’t have to count in their greenhouse gas reporting. 

All of this is driven by a global policy error made years ago at the United Nations whereby, along with things like solar, tidal and wind energy, wood biomass would be included in the list of so-called “renewables” and, amazingly, counted as a zero-emissions source! 

Countries have to count and report their greenhouse gas emissions when they burn oil, coal, or gas, but they don’t have to count emissions when they burn wood, which actually produces more GHGs than coal. It makes no sense. Scientists have called it the “Critical Climate Accounting Error”. 

Large-scale biomass for electricity projects are driving massive amounts of forest destruction around the world and actually making climate change worse. Whether burned here or abroad, there’s nothing green about it and, in economic terms, it’s the least valuable “product” ever made from our forests. It would be a huge mistake for Nova Scotia to go down the big bad biomass highway in this moment of upheaval. 

Armed with not one but two major independent reports, the Lahey report and the Natural Resources Strategy, it is time to chart a course towards a healthier long-term future for both the forests and for a truly sustainable forestry industry. Nova Scotia’s government and forestry industry should seize this opportunity to transition away from a focus on high-volume, low-value commodity production (pulp, biomass, etc.) and towards a lower-volume, higher-value product focus, including non-timber products and carbon sequestration markets.

Big biomass has no place in that future. Any proposed project of this nature should be quickly and categorically rejected. Especially in this time of climate emergency, biodiversity decline and forestry reform. 

Raymond Plourde is Wilderness Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre

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