Biomass Destruction Entirely Predictable

- by Matt Miller and Raymond Plouride, February 4, 2015, Chronicle Herald

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"382","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 333px; height: 188px; margin: 3px 10px; float: left;","title":"Photo: Aaron Beswick / Chronicle Herald"}}]]In a Jan. 9 story about damage to our forests as a result of the need to feed the giant new Nova Scotia Power biomass generator in Port Hawkesbury (“Biomass project raising green concerns”), Associate Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Allan Eddy suggested that these negative impacts were simply unintended consequences that “couldn’t have been predicted before the plant opened.”

This is simply wrong.

There were plenty of warnings that the proposed biomass project was too big to be sustainable and it strains the limits of credibility to suggest that the department responsible for managing our forests was unaware of the potential negative impacts.

Numerous stakeholders, individuals and experts predicted this outcome and laid out clear steps to try to mitigate the ecological damage that the advent of this huge new consumptive pressure would bring.

In 2009, Michelle Adams and David Wheeler (yes, the same David Wheeler who led the recent fracking review) steered the stakeholder consultation process for a Renewable Energy Strategy for Nova Scotia to provide options to help meet the province’s renewable energy targets.

Wheeler and Adams ultimately gave a highly conditional green light to forest biomass use, but noted that “more discussion regarding forestry management standards and the assurance of ecological integrity of Nova Scotia’s forests is clearly required.”

They were presented with a slew of evidence pointing to failures in the regulatory regimen and potential negative impacts from biomass harvesting.

They were clear that the case for forest biomass for energy production was “contingent on the ability of stakeholders to come together in a consensual way to identify and define sustainable harvesting practices” and called on DNR to convene such a conversation before moving ahead with any biomass projects.

That never happened.

Wheeler and Adams also directed DNR “to develop regulations outlining the highest possible standards expected for sustainable forestry practices as it applies to biomass harvesting for the purpose of energy generation — as quickly as possible” in order to “provide guarantees on ecological integrity.”

No such standards were ever created.

The report similarly noted “proponents of forest biomass-based electricity generation will need to implement procurement policies that adhere to the highest possible certification standards (e.g. FSC or a commensurate system), subjecting the actors in their supply chain to appropriate auditing and assurance systems in order to ensure the proponents’ compliance.” They further recommended “a premium of around five per cent of the payments identified for enhanced forest stewardship to meet relevant standards and audit systems.”

To this day, no such system is in place.

DNR and NSP’s guarantees on ecological integrity go no further than the current, ineffective regulatory framework that’s been in place for all forest harvesting since 2002.

Can DNR justify these minimal standards as a “guarantee of ecological integrity,” as Wheeler and Adams insisted? Not a chance. The conditions for additional stakeholder consultations and guarantees of ecological integrity were also ignored.

Similarly, the steering panel for the Natural Resources Strategy, consisting of retired chief justice Constance Glube, Joe Marshall, executive director of the Union of Nova Scotia Indians and Allan Shaw, chairman of The Shaw Group, warned in 2010 that “there is ample evidence that our forests are already under considerable stress” and that “Nova Scotia does not have the wood capacity for biomass use to make much of a difference.”

The panel strongly urged the government to “exercise great caution in the use of biomass for power generation.”

The Ecology Action Centre opposed the Port Hawkesbury biomass project both at the Utility and Review Board hearings and in various public forums. Although we acknowledged there could be some use of residual forest biomass, we advocated for many small-scale combined heat and power projects at the community level, rather than one or two huge electricity generators.

We predicted at the time that it would result in a significant increase in the amount of clearcutting and whole-tree harvesting, that valuable hardwood logs would be redirected from value-added sawmills to the biomass chipper pile, that young stands of trees would be cut before their time, that there would be firewood shortages for people who heated their homes with wood, and of course, that there would be further loss of habitat for forest dwelling species.

Less than two years in, all these predictions are coming true. And the worst part is that it’s not doing a thing to help Nova Scotia reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. And to add insult to injury it is also the most expensive form of electricity on our power bills.

Who wins? Nova Scotia Power. Who loses? You, me and all the critters that used to live in the woods. As the Natural Resources Strategy steering panel bluntly put it: “Unless there is change, Nova Scotia’s natural resources will continue to be destroyed.”

The fact that it’s now happening should come as a surprise to no one.

So what now? Although no one wants to come right out and say it, the truth is the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant is simply too big and too destructive to be allowed to continue. It needs to be shut down as soon as possible or at the very least significantly scaled back in size.

In 2017, renewable electricity from the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project is scheduled to come on stream. Nova Scotia needs to begin planning for the phasing out of large-scale forest biomass burning for electricity as this new, greener source becomes available.

In the meantime DNR needs to bring in much more stringent and effective regulations and provide support and incentives to improve harvesting practices now, before things get even worse. And the Department of Energy needs to insist — through legislation if necessary — that Nova Scotia Power bring its harvest procurement system up to “FSC or higher standards,” as directed by the Adams-Wheeler report.

Matt Miller is forestry program co-ordinator and Raymond Plourde is wilderness co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre