Sold as green energy, B.C.’s wood pellet industry under fire

Wood pellets are screened at a pellet plant in Kelowna, B.C.

British Columbia has developed a growing marketplace for wood pellets which are sold as renewable bioenergy for thermal power plants abroad, however the province’s largest producer is under fire for cutting down old-growth forests.

On Tuesday, the BC Green Party called on the provincial government to suspend the operating licenses of the Drax Group pending an investigation to find out whether the British-based company is utilizing old-growth timber in its pellet mills.

BC Green MLA Adam Olsen raised the problem during Query Period, citing BBC reports that Drax was cutting down primary, or old-growth, forests in Canada to power its power plants in Britain.

“Does she consider that in 2022, in a worsening climate crisis, burning wood pellets is clean, green energy?” Mr. Olsen asked of Katrine Convoy, the Forests Minister, within the legislature.

In response, Ms. Conroy said the province’s pellet industry gets most of its wood fibre from waste – sawdust and shavings, chips and harvest residuals – and that any trees which are harvested for pellets usually are not priceless enough to make solid wood products.

“Firms usually are not using whole trees that will be used as sawlogs. In the event that they’re using an entire tree, it’s been burnt, it’s been damaged by beetle kill,” she said. “So yes, corporations might use an entire tree for a pellet factory, however it’s a tree that wouldn’t be utilized in a sawmill.”

Drax officials didn’t reply to an interview request, but in an announcement responding to the BBC report, the corporate said 80 per cent of its Canadian pellets are manufactured from sawmill residues.

“The remainder is waste material collected from the forests which might otherwise be burned to scale back the danger of wildfires and disease,” the statement says.

Drax is Britain’s largest source of renewable electricity, at 12 per cent. A coalition of environmental organizations last yr launched a campaign to goal the corporate’s shareholders, looking for to dam the corporate’s acquisition of a B.C.-based pellet mill manufacturer, Pinnacle Renewable Energy. They argued Drax was risking its repute with its claims that wood pellet fuel is clean energy.

The deal went ahead, and Drax is now the foremost player within the wood pellet industry in B.C.

While a lot of the wood fibre going into Drax mills is salvaged material, the corporate did purchase harvesting rights last yr that included B.C. old growth, providing a soft goal for environmentalists who oppose the industry.

The Pinnacle operation now owned by Drax purchased two cut blocks from the federal government agency, BC Timber Sales, months before the province announced a freeze on the agency’s sales of at-risk old growth.

In accordance with the Ministry of Forests, roughly one-third of the trees in those cut blocks was damaged by mountain pine beetle, however the timber stands also included roughly 100 hectares of old growth.

Karen Price, an ecologist who served as an authority on the province’s Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel, said the wood pellet industry has transformed forestry in B.C., cutting old-growth forests that had previously been considered being at low risk.

“Pellets change the economic equation and open up areas that were previously outside the timber harvesting landbase, particularly distant stands with a combination of massive and smaller trees,” she said. “These stands, particularly within the inland temperate rain forest, have high biodiversity value.”

The province’s wood pellet industry is growing – exports have doubled over the past decade, with almost 2.4 billion kilograms of shipments in 2021, mostly to Britain, Japan and South Korea. In accordance with statistics provided by the Ministry of Forests, 5 per cent of that will be made up of logs that don’t meet quality or size specifications of sawlogs.

This sector grew out of the mountain pine beetle infestation that devastated 18 million hectares of interior forests. The infestation peaked in 2005, and the forest sector needed to pivot to seek out ways to make use of up dead and dying wood. Creating wood pellets was billed as a method to transform dead trees right into a product that would scale back the carbon output of coal-fired power plants 20,000 kilometres away.

But that carbon accounting is increasingly being questioned. In April, released a report criticizing Canada and B.C. for subsidizing the event of the wood pellet industry as a climate solution.

“Flawed emissions accounting and devastating impacts on forests mean that this industry is probably the most polluting on the earth,” the report says.


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