Are biofuels from Nova Scotia forests good for the environment? Show us the science!

Above: Brazil decimated its Atlantic rainforest to grow sugarcane for ethanol. Below: An old yellow birch left standing in a clearcut in N.S. Will biofuels replace pulp and paper as the final agent of destruction of our native Acadian forest?

A recent opinion piece in the LocalXpress by Rod Badcock of BioApplied Innovation Pathways extols the potential benefits of a high-tech “bioeconomy” for Nova Scotia.

He cites Cellufuel in Brooklyn N.S, as “forging a new innovative path, developing a renewable diesel that can be made from wood chips (a byproduct from sawmills)” and notes that “The province has been supportive of this innovation”. Reducing carbon-emissions associated with petroleum fuels is cited as a major benefit.

Use of genuine by-products from sawmills to produce biofuels could reduce carbon emissions compared to use of petroleum products. However, that’s a slippery slope as we have seen in the case of our larger biomass energy plants which take in primary forest biomass when there are not enough wastes, or just because it’s cheaper.

Using primary forest biomass to produce biofuel would almost certainly increase GHG emissions over the next 50+ years compared to use of petroleum fuels, as occurs when primary forest biomass is used to produce heat and electricity. It’s over the next 50 yeas that we really need to reduce our GHG emissions. (I say “almost” because I haven’t seen any life cycle carbon accounting for biofuels*; unless you could convert wood to biofuels at very high efficiency, it’s hard to see how it could be any better than burning it.) *UPDATE: Study: Biofuels increase, rather than decrease, heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions Univ of Michigan, Aug 25, 2016

Rod Badcock notes that “Our renewable resources are underutilized — the Nova Scotia forest industry, for example, is under-harvested. Using conservative models, actual harvest is at least 30 per cent below what our forests grow on an annual basis.” So he seems to view the feedstocks as coming mainly from primary biomass, not from sawmill wastes. Likewise, the N.S. government’s interest is clearly in finding a substitute for pulp and paper in order to keep the fibre mills running as markets for pulp and paper decline – it’s no coincidence that Cellufuel is located in Brooklyn, Queens Co., site of the former Bowater mill.

The former Bowater mill could be left to sit empty, with the equipment gathering dust. I know there is plenty of life left in this mill, plenty of opportunity to develop new products not yet imagined, and to test and demonstrate technologies that will help bring those products to new and existing markets. – Premier Darrell Dexter, Dec 2012

In 2012 when Premier Dexter kick-started the project with $500,000, it was predicted that commercial production of “renewable” diesel fuel would begin within 18 months. (CH, Dec 12, 2012. Another $1.67 million went that direction in 2016.

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…The hub’s initial focus will be developing biofuel for the local heating oil and marine fuel markets. But the plan is to create other potential green products made of wood fibre. – From the public announcement as reported in LocalXpress Jul 7, 2016 , italics mine

What is “leftover wood”? I am guessing it’s wood that is still being harvested when there is no market for it. Perhaps the P&P mills are paid for, but much or most of the 1/2million dollar plus contractor owned harvesting gear isn’t.

As well as the claims of reduced carbon emission being questionable, I have to wonder how much of a dent in fossil fuel use could be achieved by converting wood to biofuel and at what cost to our forests.

Almost all of the arable land on Earth would need to be covered with the fastest-growing known energy crops, such as switchgrass, to produce the amount of energy currently consumed from fossil fuels annually. – U.S. Dept of Energy cited in Synthetic Solutions to the Climate Crisis FOE, 2010

So it seems we couldn’t make much of a dent, or if we did, it would come very much at the expense of our forests and food crops.

I conducted research in Brazil in the late 1970s/early 80s when they were ramping up production of “Proalcool” (ethanol) for cars from sugarcane, one of the most productive crops in the world. The results on the road were impressive: all vehicles used fuel that was at least 20% ethanol and vehicles capable of using 100% ethanol were soon developed and produced, that in a time of high oil prices.

But there was massive deforestation in order to grow more sugarcane, also, traditional food crops were displaced by the sugarcane, hiking food prices. The government decrees that drove this program were instituted largely at the behest of big cane producers who sought to stabilize and expand the market for sugarcane. (View How Brazil Created The International Ethanol Boom by Vanessa Cordonnier, 2016.) Manioc (cassava) would have been a better choice because it could be more readily grown and produces more alcohol but “sugar cane farmers and producers.. made sugar cane appear a more viable alternative.”

In the U.S., the production of ethanol from corn (for gasohol) has followed a similar path. (View The Case Against More Ethanol by Ford Runge, 2016.)

So what’s the relevance to Nova Scotia?
(i) It’s hard to see how, in the long run, our slow-growing trees could compete with fast-growing crops as feedstocks (unless of course we give the trees away for practically nothing, which wouldn’t last long).
(ii) As was the case in Brazil, efforts to develop biofuels from trees have more to do with declines or volatility in traditional markets than any real demands or a good scientific and economic case for producing biofuels from N.S. trees.
(iii) If we really do begin to produce biofuels from trees on the scale envisaged by it proponents, the clearcut harvesting would be even more devastating for biodiversity and ecosystem services than it is currently.

Says Rod Badcock:

As a province, we’ve done a good job of lowering emissions from electricity. The next piece of the “emissions pie” comes from liquid fuel consumption in transportation and heating. Today, these fuels are imported and almost entirely made from petroleum sources, but they can be produced (in part) from renewable materials like wood fibre and energy crops grown on farmland…Doing so would not only reduce the carbon-emissions impact from the consumption of these fuels, it would also present an economic opportunity to produce the renewable fuel component right here in Nova Scotia.

Can R.B. and other proponents of producing biofuels from trees and other feedstocks in N.S. show us the science and economics that support such statements?


View also:

NSDNR seeks markets for SW Nova Scotia’s “fibre basket”
Posted on Mar 2, 2017

Nova Scotia’s Biorefinery Plan cites full-tree harvesting, other requirements to make it competitive
Posted on, Feb 22, 2017

Nova Scotia’s Biofuel Bonanza
Posted on Jan, 27 2017

Progress Report did not highlight key priorities in NSDNR Business Plan
Posted on September 2, 2016

What is this hub? Who, exactly, is receiving the money? And why is Emera investing so heavily?
Posted on July 9, 2016

Bio-based fuels from our forests?
Posted on July 7, 2016

UPDATE (May 6, 2017): For a much more thorough examination of this issue, see Life after pulp: energy miracles, jobs and other Nova Scotia government delusions by Linda Pannazzo in the Halifax Examiner, May 5, 2017. (It’s behind a paywall)

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