British Columbia's forest management under scrutiny as drive to develop province's bioenergy industry moves into Interior's beetle-killed pine stands

Audrey Dixon

Audrey Dixon

Nov 8, 2011 – The Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER, British Columbia , November 7, 2011 () – Forest management in British Columbia is coming under scrutiny as the province's drive to develop a bioenergy industry moves into the beetlekilled pine stands of the central Interior.
B.C. is committed to using wood to generate electricity - BC Hydro has already conducted two calls for proposals on bioenergy projects - but questions are being raised by scientists and environmentalists alike on how much wood can be removed and whether o r not it truly is a carbon-neutral source of energy.

Leading the fray against bioenergy is Greenpeace, which released a report Nov. 2 calling for tighter controls on harvesting biomass, more detailed carbon accounting, and restricting bioenergy projects to small, local operations.

But supporters say most of the material being removed from B.C.'s beetle-killed forests is destined to burn anyway, either in wildfires or as a safety precaution to burn tinder-dry debris before a conflagration occurs.

"We have a lot of debris on our forest floor and that is like gasoline, just waiting to be ignited," John Allan, president of the Council of Forest Industries, said in an interview. "I am not suggesting we hoover up the forest floor, but we have an issue in B.C. that we have to address: "These trees are all dead; they are not absorbing carbon any more."

University of B.C. professor emeritus Hamish Kimmins, one of the province's most respected forest ecologists, said in an interview that there is no simple answer around using biomass for energy. But there is a risk that too much material can be removed fr om the logged site.

"It should be considered as just one of several possible forest products. It should be evaluated the way the removal of any other product is evaluated. In other words, you have to look at what is the intensity of removal, what is the frequency of removal, and what are the soil conditions on the site."

Allan said that the forest sector views biomass as an additional resource whose time has come. The industry is a large producer of co-generated energy - using the excess heat from debris-fired boilers to produce electricity. And it wants to lead the way i n developing new bioenergy plants that would integrate into the existing lumber-pulp-paper value chain.

Hydro's last call for proposals went to two companies for four stand-alone plants to produce 754 Gigawatt hours a year of electricity. That's not a lot of power. Hydro's Site C dam proposal would generate 5,100 Gigawatt hours a year.

To make it worthwhile to haul debris out of the forest, the two companies, West Fraser Mills and Western Bioenergy, a subsidiary of French energy firm Dalkia, are to be paid handsomely. The maximum adjusted price is $150 a Megawatt hour, says BC Hydro's w ebsite. The base rate industrial customers like pulp mills pay for power varies but is in the $45 a megawatt hour range.

The province's chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, said B.C. is trying to develop a synergy between the sawmills and pulp mills and the energy sector. Bioenergy plants would use sawmill residue first, then roadside piles of woody debris at logging sites and f inally, go into beetle-killed stands and harvest dead pine specifically for biofuel.

"My understanding is that these energy producers would never want to exercise their right to go out and harvest because that's the most expensive form of material going into these plants," he said in an interview.

West Fraser's two plants will fit in with its sawmills at Fraser Lake and Chetwynd. Dalkia intends to build plants at Fort St. James and Merrit, where competition for wood residue could become an issue.

Snetsinger said biomass harvesters are subject to the same environmental rules, including the amount of woody debris to leave behind, as are forest companies. On the issue of carbon accounting, he said B.C. research is slim.

The Greenpeace report, Fuelling a Biomess, says that once the total carbon footprint from harvesting, processing and burning is taken into account, forest biomass is dirty.

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