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Report: Climate Consequences from Logging Forests for Bioenergy

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A new report warns about the potential worsening of climate change from logging Canadian forests for electricity and heat, and recommends a “precautionary approach” regarding the expansion of biomass energy.

Forest Biomass Energy Policy in the Maritime Provinces, written by Jamie Simpson for the Halifax, Nova Scotia-based East Coast Environmental Law, evaluates environmental impacts from existing and proposed bioenergy facilities in eastern Canada, with concerns including: inaccurate carbon accounting, an increase in logging, a decrease in forest productivity and soil health, and loss of biodiversity.

The recent uptick in bioenergy is “driven almost entirely” by policy decisions spurring the development of fossil fuel alternatives, according to the report, with regulations failing to accurately assess environmental tradeoffs.

Simpson tracks seven biomass power facilities in the Maritime region. Two facilities in Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia Power Inc., a 60 megawatt facility in Port Hawkesbury, and a 30 megawatt facility in Brooklyn, make up approximately 4% of the province’s electricity. Four biomass power facilities in New Brunswick generate 160 megawatts, while a wood and oil burning facility in Prince Edward Island generates 1.2 megawatts.

Despite emerging science demonstrating significant carbon emissions from bioenergy, most international and regional policies ignore these emissions in its accounting. The report references several studies debunking “carbon neutral” bioenergy, including Timothy Searchinger’s Princeton study, Bjart Holtsmark’s Norway study, and Massachusetts’ Manomet study.

Simpson critiques the Manomet study, which debunks carbon neutrality over the short term, as underestimating carbon impacts in its assumption that logged forests will be left to regrow and re-sequester carbon indefinitely. He explains that Manomet doesn’t account for future logging or a loss of forest productivity due to logging impacts or climate change.

The report asserts that, if this emerging climate science is accurate, “we may be misleading ourselves as to the actual carbon” benefits of bioenergy. Since renewable energy policies for the Maritime Provinces don’t take these studies into account, government may be “undermining efforts to reduce carbon emissions due to faulty accounting.”

Bioenergy has spurred a 20% increase in logging New Brunswick’s Crown (public) forests, and Nova Scotia logging has increased 14% overall. Currently, there is “little regulatory oversight” for bioenergy logging in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, including “whole-tree harvesting and near-complete removal of living and dead material from sites...”

No specific regulations for biomass logging exist in Nova Scotia, aside from forestry regulations requiring ten trees be left per hectare (~2.5 acres) along with streamside buffers.

In 2011, the Nova Scotia Department of Energy set a cap of 350,000 dry tons (700,000 green tons) worth of standing trees to be cut for bioenergy to qualify under Renewable Electricity Regulations.

Nova Scotia Power Inc.’s (NSPI) 60 megawatt biopower facility is estimated to burn 705,000 dry tons of wood per year, at least 385,000 tons coming from whole trees, the rest from sawmill “residue.”

The report references news coverage of hardwood product manufacturers blaming the NSPI facility for  “either going out of business or reducing output due to a shortage of hardwood supply.”

New Brunswick’s Renewable Resources Regulation requires 40% of electricity sales from its public power utility, NB Power, to be generated from “renewable” sources, including bioenergy, though no regulations exist for biomass logging.

Nova Scotia’s 2010 Renewable Electricity Regulations call for 40% of energy from “renewable” sources by 2020, while a feed-in tariff program provides tax incentives for combined-heat and power biomass facilities.

Prince Edward Island’s goals for 2010 included 15% of energy from renewables, including bioenergy. Bioenergy is currently 10% of PEI’s total energy use, made up almost entirely from residential wood heating and one district heating facility in Charlottetown.

Prince Edward Island isn’t currently considering biomass power and only regulates biomass logging if it receives public subsidies. In that case, whole-tree logging cannot occur along with clearcutting (unless converting  lands to non forest use), but is allowed with selective logging.