Small scale wood chip-heating systems for public buildings are currently being fast-tracked by L&F as a partial substitute for The Mill as a market for low value wood, and touted as “carbon-friendly fuel“.
A much bolder vision is being promoted by British businessman Richard Spinks. He proposes
“…to develop a second generation biomass pellet manufacturing facility in Pictou County. The proposal targets an investment of $84 million Canadian, and would involve shipping 600,000 tonnes of product per annum within 12-18 months of project start
– from Pictou County Chamber: ‘Green’ business proposal could spell jobs for county by Jackie Jardin in pictouadvocate.com Feb 6, 2020.
The proposal has already been endorsed by Pictou County County Chamber of Commerce Chairman Blair Van Veld who is “over the moon” about it (Pictou Advocate Feb 6, 2020); it is also touted in a Feb 20 Chronicle Herald editorial.
According to the Chronicle Herald, Spinks, who has a somewhat checkered history in the biomass area, “thinks a wood-pellet mill could use all the chips Northern Pulp bought, perhaps more, and could find a market in Europe. Says the CH, “Spinks’ proposal is little more than a gleam in his eye at this point, but on the face of it, the idea makes sense. There are sites in Pictou County that could host such a plant; Spinks mentioned the former TrentonWorks property. Much depends on how his idea is received at an upcoming forestry industry meeting.”
Regardless of the scale, and regardless of whether they are based on wood from Crown land or from private lands, the NS Government should be setting standards to ensure that all forest chipping/bioenergy projects in NS do not
(i) exacerbate soil nutrient deficiencies &/or make already acid stressed watersheds more acid stressed or put others over the threshold;
(ii) increase GHG emissions compared to the current heating systems over a 10 year period, i.e. parity to be reached by 2030 (or earlier).
The first issue is a mostly peculiarly Nova Scotian issue which was identified by aquatic scientists in the 1990s in relation to declines and local extinctions of salmon populations. L&F began to conduct related research and modelling in 2008/2009 specifically in relation to prospects of harvesting wood for biomass, and promised to have an operational system for assessing sustainability of forest harvests based on nutrient supply by 2011; most of the research has been done, but it still hasn’t been implemented in early 2020. It’s an especially critical issue for biodiverse SW Nova Scotia. View Why is the low base saturation/soil acidification/nutrient depletion/extreme surface water acidity in SW Nova Scotia still ignored in Crown land harvest decisions? (NSFN Feb 3, 2019).
The second issue is the 2020 issue. We’re all responsible for the Australian wildfires and a lot else that is going to be thrown at us climate- and weather-wise and we all have to do our part and more to reduce GHGs (greenhouse gases). On that score and also because of habitat destruction, a lot of forest bioenergy is gaining a deserved reputation as “dirty energy“. Some forest bioenergy is definitely not so, but we need proper accounting to distinguish them. View:Islanders are asking the right questions about biomass heating 23Nov2019
If the standards were set and the proper audits conducted, I wouldn’t be surprised if some or even all of the six small scale wood-heat projects L&F is currently pursuing passed with glowing colours. I would be surprised, on the other hand, if the Spinks scheme did so (likewise for Nova Scotia Power’s Port Hawkesbury biomass facility). But we don’t know without the numbers. And therein lies the danger: without setting standards and rigorous, transparent procedures for confirming conformity with the standards, it’s a very slippery slope from green or “clean” forest bioenergy to dirty energy.
Platitudes wont do it. It’s 2020 and there are a lot of young people out there with fully functional brains (at my age, mine is not) who understand what lies ahead and what we need to do about it and forest bioenergy is one of the issues. While there is a lot of ambiguity in the international protocols for assessing GHG balances for forest bioenergy currently,* it would not be smart to expect that to continue.
*For example in Europe the burning of chips imported from Canada and the US is currently counted as carbon neutral on the basis that it is “accounted for” on the Canada and US ledgers by changes in standing their stocks of forest carbon; however, “accounted for” does not mean it is carbon neutral. The way the accounting is done, everything for the forests is essentially thrown in one pot and inevitably the conclusion is that forests and forestry are net sinks for carbon, even though some or many of the forest bioenergy schemes may not be – i.e. we do not know the balances for forest bioenergy specifically. For more on this topic, view Nova Scotia forests, forestry and GHGs 2: Who accounts for the EU’s emissions from bioenergy generated from imported chips? (NSFN July 27, 2018).
In the context of the dual global challenges of biodiversity decline and climate change, and in the context of NS where we have amongst the most if not the most intensively harvested forests in Canada (short of deforestation) and some of the poorest forest soils in NA, many argue that there is NO room for forest bioenergy of any type, that we need to be thinking in terms of zero-carbon fuels, or at the least, only forest bioenergy with carbon capture.
In 2020, that’s not an extreme position. But to develop new forest bioenergy projects, however well intentioned, without appropriate standards and full transparency is not smart or defensible in long run and perhaps even in the short run; it invites the label of “dirty energy”, deserved or not. And even the proponents of forest bioenergy wont want that – ask the Oil Sands folks!
There is a veil of secrecy around L&F’s SMALL SCALE WOOD ENERGY INITIATIVE There is no reference to possible LCAs (Life Cycle Assessments) of GHG emissions or to nutrient assessments in the limited documentation that is available to the public on that initiative. Following up on the L&F News Release of Feb 3, 2020, announcing Public Buildings Converting to Wood Heat, I requested to see the “tender [that] has been issued to five pre-qualified vendors for the design, construction and operation of modern biomass boilers that use wood chips from private woodlots”, stating that “FYI, In general I am supportive of this initiative, however I am concerned about the lack of LCAs for GHG emissions, as I have commented before on nsforestnotes.ca So I would like to see what is in the Tender, and I would likely comment accordingly on nsforestnotes.ca”. Perhaps not surprisingly, I got a final answer a week later which read “Just heard from staff who are saying the document is only currently available to qualified proponents. Once we award the tender, the documents can be released.”
So it seems we are all supposed to be satisfied with the simple assurances that “carbon-friendly fuel” will be produced and that it will be “supporting sustainable forest management”.
Sometime back, L&F hired a “carbon modeller”, but subsequent to that hire, there is no info on the L&F website about him or what he is doing. On his personal website he does let on that “My work with the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry is focused on both climate change mitigation and adaptation in the province’s forest sector. Much of this work is focused on modelling and analysis to support management planning and decision making, but it also involves communication, outreach, and collaboration with other forest stakeholders. I also supervise students studying forests and climate change in Nova Scotia on research projects that both support their education and support the work of the Department”. ‘Would be nice to know more about it all.
L&F has hardly been any more forthcoming on its Forest Nutrient Budget Model. Supposedly, nutrient-budgeting will be incorporated in the revised FMG (Forest Management Guide), whenever that finally comes out; there was no preview or discussion of it in a FMG workshop I attended in Aug of 2019, only a vague promise that it was coming. The FMG will apply only to the matrix component – Ecological Forestry – of the Triad system; ‘don’t know what L&F intends to do in the way of nutrient management in the Intensive Forestry component of the triad.
What we do know, is that planning for harvests and harvesting continues on the nutrient deficient soils in SW Nova Scotia without consideration of its impacts on forest productivity and biodiversity and on the already highly stressed aquatic systems.
We also know that a very progressive initiative put forward by Annapolis Co. in the spring of 2019 to manage a piece of Crown land as a “Climate Forest” and use it to support small-scale bio-gasification heating in municipal buildings was rejected by L&F Minister Iain Rankin without further discussion.
It seems L&F has not yet opened the bunker, the recommendations of the Lahey Report and of a more recent Strategy for Improving Openness, Transparency, Collaboration and Accountability at the Department of Lands and Forestry not withstanding.