Whole logs stacked high in wood pellet mill yards across British Columbia aren’t supposed to be the norm, but new research shows it may be more common than the industry says.
The research also found that 12 per cent of logged material in the province is eventually broken down for the controversial biofuel.
Operations — often dubbed as "green" or "sustainable" — are meant to use residuals from the logging industry to create dense pellets, which are then burned to create energy.
However, photos obtained by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) of yards in Smithers, Burns Lake and Houston show piles of whole logs ready to be compressed and broken down.
Coupled with new research from the centre, showing that large volumes of trees have been logged specifically for the wood pellet industry since 2010, industry workers and environmental groups are concerned. They’re asking that the government put a hold on new pellet mills until an independent review is done.
“It’s clear that there are very large amounts of logs that are ending up in these facilities, and the intention is to turn those logs directly into wood pellets, which is counter to the common narrative,” said Ben Parfitt, a policy analyst with the CCPA’s B.C. office and researcher for the study.
“Which is that the industry is essentially utilizing this essentially worthless junk.”
As to why people should care, Parfitt says there are a few reasons. Not only are the environmental implications severe, but the industry produces few jobs. Just over 300 people work in the pellet industry in the province, scattered across 14 mills — a half a per cent of the total number of forestry workers.
Gary Fiege, president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada, which represents workers in the sector, echoed Parfitt’s concerns around the industry’s actions.
“We need to push the pause button on pellet mills until we figure out where the trees logged in B.C. are going. Twenty years ago, 91,000 people worked in our forest industry. Today, it’s less than 49,000,” said Fiege.
“We desperately need to make higher-value forest products and generate far more jobs from each tree we log. There’s a place for pellet mills in B.C., but at the end of the line, not the beginning.”
That line continues to blur, says Parfitt, with U.K. company Drax set to control half the existing pellet mills in B.C. with its planned takeover of Pinnacle Renewable Energy. Pinnacle calls itself “one of the world's leading manufacturers and distributors of industrial wood pellets, which are used by large-scale thermal power generators as a greener alternative to produce reliable baseload renewable power.”
The CCPA data shows Pinnacle led the removal of at least 1.3 million cubic metres of logs from the province since 2010.
“It is exceedingly clear that major thermal electricity producers like Drax in the U.K., have no hope of meeting their wood requirements from the United Kingdom's forests. It’s a non-starter, there's not enough wood in those forests to sustain their operations,” he said.
“... And there's a very green veneer being put on all of this power production.”
That fits into a larger and concerning narrative, says Parfitt — that the carbon emitted during burning the pellets is offset by the carbon stored in freshly planted trees. He says those worries are known and growing.
The CCPA research is timely — a wood pellet operation is being proposed in Fort Nelson, where two mills shut down in 2008, laying off hundreds of people. The forest industry has had little activity in the area since and the mill would be welcomed by many in the area, including the Fort Nelson First Nation, which has voiced its support.
However, the CCPA, Public and Private Workers of Canada, Conservation North and Stand.earth are all calling for an independent review of the wood pellet industry before the Fort Nelson mill goes through — an operation the CCPA says would require around 1.5 million trees.
Parfitt says the ask for a review is in line with what B.C.’s Forests Minister Katrine Conroy has been tasked to do by Premier John Horgan: Protect old-growth forests and enact policies to move the industry to higher-value production.
“I think there's a recognition that, both from a jobs perspective and a forest health perspective, if we start going down the road of logging trees directly to support the manufacturing of a product that is then burned, we're not doing our economy or our climate any favours,” he said.
“In fact, we’re harming both.”
Cloe Logan / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer
Cloe Logan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer