Nova Scotia’s Biofuel Bonanza

Using our forests to produce liquid fuels could well liquidate the forests themselves

A NSDNR Press Release yesterday announced “A new study shows Nova Scotia has strong potential to develop an innovative biorefinery that produces an alternative fuel from renewable sources of fibre. The liquid biofuel could be used to heat homes and power marine vessels, among other potential uses, according to a study done by Nova Scotia’s Innovation Hub, an industrial, applied-research initiative.”

This project has been simmering beneath the surface and receiving government funding since at least 2009, then under the guise of clean technology. On Dec 12, 2012, NDP Premier Dexter announced handouts for the development of “new products not yet imagined, and to test and demonstrate technologies that will help bring those products to new and existing markets.” A test facility would be set up at the former Bowater mill in Brooklyn, Queens Co., “to transform the former Bowater Mersey mill into a centre that will drive new opportunities through innovation” as otherwise “The former Bowater mill could be left to sit empty, with the equipment gathering dust” (see Innovacorp News ).

The latest handout (that we know about) was in July 2016 when it was reported that “Nova Scotia Power’s parent company and government are providing $1.67 million in funding for a new centre that will develop uses for the forestry industry’s leftover wood…” (re: Bio-based fuels from our forests?). The precise figures for the dollars coming from government are usually vague, and a lot of the funding goes through InnovaCorp which sounds like a private company but is a provincial Crown corporation.

A key player on the Nova Scotian scene and recipient of public funds is CelluFuel Inc. of Halifax, but the emerging forest biofuel business is hardly restricted to Nova Scotia. According to the 2012 Innovacorp News item cited above, “30 of the Fortune 100 companies invest in bioenergy and bio-based products”. If Nova Scotia has such “strong potential” in this area, why is so much government funding going into it?

Other than the handouts from the public purse, there are many reasons to be concerned about the Nova Scotia biofuel initiatives, foremost, that they would perpetuate the drive begun in the late 50s/1960s to convert our mixed, multi-aged Acadian forest to industrial conifer-dominated forests clearcut on 50-year rotations*. Combined with the fragile state of our soils because of poor buffering capacity and acid rain, and climatic warming effects on species such as balsam fir and black spruce, it’s only a matter of time that would see use of the forests to produce liquid fuels liquidating the forests themselves.
*For a perspective of how biofuels and the like could replace the declining pulp and paper market for NS forest products and make use of “Idled Industrial Equipment”, see Adding value to forest products by Peter Milley for Halifax Global/One Nova Scotia, 2014

Then there is the pesky issue of whether these “green fuels” are really green. On the surface, it’s hard to see how the carbon emissions would be any less than those coming from use of primary forest biomass for heating and generation of electricity. John M. DeCicc has some advice on this score (bolding is mine):

The carbon mitigation challenge for liquid fuels has been incorrectly seen as a fuel synthesis and substitution problem. In reality, it is a net carbon uptake problem. Strategy should move away from a downstream focus on replacing fuel products to an upstream focus on achieving additional CO2 uptake through the most cost-effective and least damaging means possible. All parties with an interest in the issue are advised to rethink their priorities accordingly. – Biofuel’s carbon balance: doubts, certainties and implications Climatic Change Volume 121, Issue 4, pp 801–814 (2013)

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