In May 2021, Dalhousie University issued a tender for “sustainable biomass” to feed the bioenergy plant on its agricultural campus in Truro.
At the end of July 2021, the university quietly awarded the contract — worth $1,318,187.50 — to J.D. Irving and Wagner Forest NS.
This marked a departure for Dalhousie’s biomass plant, which for the previous three years had been sourcing biomass from three Nova Scotian forestry co-operatives.
For those hoping the Dalhousie biomass contract would once again go to small, locally owned forestry co-operatives, the news that the contract was going to two large corporations came as a huge disappointment.
One of those who’s disappointed with the contract news is Tom Miller from Pictou County, an outspoken defender of ecological forestry who has been working in the woods as a forester and lumberman for 48 years.
“JDI and Wagner no doubt could undercut the others with their version of sustainable biomass,” he tells the Halifax Examiner. “It’s harder and slower if you have a good idea of what sustainable really means.” Miller continues:
That’s the way things are done around here, though. Lots of behind-closed-door deals that are done by the time anyone finds out. And always in industry’s favour. It’s such a piss-off.”
Biomass energy is a contentious issue in Nova Scotia, and something the Halifax Examiner has reported on extensively, including here, here, here, and here.
Related: Feeding the fire. Biomass and Nova Scotia’s race for the bottom.
And now sawmills across the region are looking for markets for their wood chips and bark, after Emera-owned Brooklyn Power on the South Shore was knocked offline by high winds that damaged stacks at the site in February. Michael Gorman with CBC reported on that here.
News low key and slow to get out
Although the Dalhousie decision on biomass procurement was made in July last year, it took months for the news to get out. It wasn’t until November 2021 that Dalhousie University finally got around to informing other bidders that their bids had been unsuccessful.
And even then, the news didn’t exactly make headlines. An internet search doesn’t turn up any media coverage of the contract apart from this November 2021 article in the Halifax Examiner by Jennifer Henderson.
The Halifax Examiner has learned that North Nova Forest Owners Co-operative was one of the unsuccessful bidders. It is also one of forestry co-ops that had been supplying the plant with biomass since it opened in 2018.
The North Nova Co-op’s submission to Dalhousie in 2021 made the case for a renewed contract to supply the biomass plant by saying the co-operative was:
… well positioned to meet the sustainable biomass feedstock supply needs outlined in the RFP [Request for Proposals] both with respect to volume and quality but also within the broader principles and practices of a sustainable forestry model. North Nova is passionate about creating the right balance between social, economic and environmental variables with respect to sustainable, ecological forestry and commercial practices with the private woodlot community they are engaged with and the industry partners that are part of the supply chain and standards landscape.
The Halifax Examiner contacted Greg Watson, manager of North Nova Co-op, to learn more.
In Watson’s view, the co-op had several advantages when it came to supplying sustainable biomass to Dalhousie University’s biomass plant in Truro. He notes that North Nova is based in Wentworth and its members and their woodlots are close to the facility, the co-op creates good local jobs for people in Colchester and Cumberland counties, and there are a lot of local spinoffs.
“We support the local community whenever we can,” Watson says. “It all just fits together. We’re a Nova Scotia company. We’re a co-operative in a small community. We’re not an outside entity. We’re not from another country. We invest here, right in our area.”
Watson says North Nova is considered a leader in harvesting based on the principles of ecological forestry laid out in the 2018 Independent Review of Forest Practices in Nova Scotia — known as the Lahey Report after its lead author, William Lahey. Lahey is president of the University of King’s College, which is affiliated with Dalhousie University, where he is also a law professor.
Watson doesn’t understand why the Lahey Report was not even mentioned in Dalhousie University’s Request for Proposals (RFP) for the supply of biomass for its Truro facility.
The Lahey report is “science-based,” he argues, “Lahey came away saying that we need to put ecosystems first, and without doing that, the economic viability of the forest will collapse on its own.”
The Lahey Report recommended that ecological-based management and forestry be implemented on Crown lands, and that this should also become the model for private land. It called for support for the efforts of woodlot owner membership-based organizations to promote responsible forest management on private land, as long as they demonstrated their commitment to a triad model of ecological forestry.
Lahey also recommended that there should be greater emphasis on a broader range of forestry products for local markets from private lands, including alternative markets such as small-scale wood energy projects for low-quality wood.
Watson believes that if Dalhousie University wants “sustainable” biomass for its plant in Truro, it should be looking carefully at how economically and environmentally sustainable it is. “You need to put ecosystems first and you need to demonstrate you’re doing that,” he adds.
Watson notes that Dalhousie University is a public institution, and that the Lahey Report has, “on the surface at least,” had support from just about everybody. “So it’s surprising to me that they [Dalhousie] wouldn’t have to have adopted that in their plan for sustainability,” he says.
Watson is not the only one disappointed by the failure to include the Lahey Report in all decisions regarding forest management and harvesting in the province.
Six months after Dalhousie University issued its RFP for the biomass to feed the Truro plant, Lahey himself released a scathing review of progress made — or the lack thereof — three years after his report was released.
As the Halifax Examiner reported, Lahey found that nothing had changed in the way logging was done on the ground, and the implementation of the report’s recommendations could not be “judged a success.”
Related: Three years after he wrote the blueprint for changing how Nova Scotia does forestry, nothing has changed, says Bill Lahey
Gaps in the Request for Proposals
It’s not just the Lahey Report that is nowhere to be found in the 39-page Dalhousie University RFP for “sustainable biomass feedstock” for its Truro plant.
Also conspicuously missing from the RFP are the terms one might expect to see in any energy proposal in 2022, with the climate crisis and catastrophic biodiversity loss casting a pall over the future of humanity, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to warn us. Absent from the RFP are some terms common in any document even remotely related to climate change and environmental sustainability:
- ecological forestry
- carbon / carbon emissions / carbon accounting / carbon footprint
- greenhouse gas emissions / greenhouse gas accounting
The key terms “climate change” and “greenhouse gas” appear only once in the actual RFP, appended like a vague afterthought to a line indicating that the supplier(s) of biomass would receive financing from Dalhousie:
Silviculture funding for selective management will be provided for the full tonnage amount for all biomass fuel supplies annually. Dalhousie is adopting this practice to support goals related to climate change and greenhouse gas.
Support whose goals “related to climate change and greenhouse gas”? What does that even mean in this context?
Questions like these and others about the tendering process begged for answers, so I requested an interview with someone at Dalhousie University who might be able to explain how the RFP was developed and the criteria used in awarding the contract.
Alas, a Dalhousie University media spokesperson said she didn’t “have someone available” for an interview.
I also sent some detailed questions to the media spokesperson, requesting that they be answered individually; among them:
- The 2021 request for proposals (RFP) for the 2021-28 “supply of sustainable biomass feedstock” for the plant specified “sustainable biomass.” However, I am unable to see a definition for “sustainable” in the RFP. Would you be able to provide me with the definition of “sustainable” that was used in developing the RFP and choosing the provider(s) of the biomass?
- The 2021 RFP states that, “Proponents are advised that although Dalhousie’s primary intention is to accept a competitively priced fee proposal, Dalhousie does reserve the right to negotiate alternative pricing based on revised interpretation and definition of the scope of the supply that may or may not lead to fuel cost reduction.” Was the primary criterion for selection of biomass providers the price? If not, what other criteria were used? [emphasis added]
- In the original contract issued to providers in 2017, Dalhousie University stipulated that, “low value forest biomass must come from environmentally managed lands.” Was that also a criterion in the 2021 RFP? If so, how was it assessed and evaluated, and what weight was it given in choosing Wagner and Irving for the contract?
- There is no mention of the Lahey Report or “ecological forestry” in the 2021 RFP. Were the recommendations of this report not considered relevant to this RFP? If not, why not?
- The [North Nova] forestry co-operative, which represents hundreds of private woodlot owners who could benefit from this contract, noted in its bid to supply sustainable biomass to the Dalhousie plant in Truro, that “Sustainable forestry practices also allow for active carbon storage. North Nova would also be open to exploring a partnership with the Dalhousie Agricultural College, looking at their carbon footprint through mitigation tactics linked sustainable forestry practices. There could also be an academic application related to this arrangement.” Were these points considered at all in the evaluation and awarding of the contract? Do Wagner and Irving also offer these advantages? [emphasis added]
In lieu of detailed answers, the Dalhousie University media spokesperson sent this:
… in terms of your individual questions, the RFP really speaks for itself.
What I can tell you, however, is that the Biomass Energy Plant plays a part in Dal’s ongoing efforts to improve the sustainability of its operations and reduce its carbon footprint. In the case of this RFP the term “sustainable” relates more broadly to various sections of the RFP such as material use, efficiency considerations, and renewability, but is not an exact definition.
In terms of criteria, all bidders were evaluated on the criteria noted in the RFP. We chose to go with 100% sawmill residue this time (before it was about 85 percent).
The Biomass Energy Plant is a project that is not carbon neutral but contributes to the advancement of our goal of carbon neutrality.
And the winners are …
When Jennifer Henderson first reported that Dalhousie had granted the biomass contract to J.D. Irving and Wagner Forest NS, she also reached out to the university to ask about the sustainability of the wood harvesting.
This is what Henderson learned and reported:
“The product is all sawmill residue from two local sawmills,” said Stephanie Rogers, a spokesperson for Dalhousie University’s Agricultural campus. “Sproule Lumber owned by Irving is just 10 km away and will supply 75% of the total. The plant will consume between 20,000 and 21,000 tonnes of biomass annually. The heat will be used on campus and the boiler should generate about three quarters of our electricity. The price will be based on the moisture content of each truck load but the annual average cost is projected to be in the range of $52-$54 a tonne.”
The two corporations that won the three-year contract — that can be extended to five — are both large out-of-province corporations, and in the case of Wagner Forest NS that is part of Wagner Forest Management, also out of country.
Wagner Forest Management is based in New Hampshire, and says it “manages” 2.4 million acres of land in “timberland investments” in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
Wagner owns more than half a million acres of woodlands in Nova Scotia, or about 3% of the province.
In 2006, Neenah Paper, the successor to Scott Maritimes that owned the pulp mill in Pictou County and more than a million acres of land in the province, sold about half of that — 500,894 acres — to Wagner for $155 million. Wagner set up two separate corporate entities, Atlantic Star Forestry Ltd and Nova Star Forestry. The latter held properties that could be sold off as cottage lots of development properties, while the former was acquiring timberlands for clearcutting to feed the pulp mill.
As the Examiner reported in April 2021, Wagner allegedly asked snowmobile and ATV clubs to send out group emails to members to get them to oppose the Biodiversity Act, a vicious campaign that ultimately led then-Premier Iain Rankin to disembowel the Act before it was passed.
As I did then, for this article I emailed Wagner with questions, and asked how the company would ensure the biomass it supplies to Dalhousie University is “sustainable,” whether it would come from ecological or industrial forestry harvesting, and where it would be sourced. As in 2021, Wagner didn’t reply.
Oddly, Wagner doesn’t appear to have any sawmills that would produce “sawmill residue” that Dalhousie said is fuelling the plant.
J.D. Irving biomass
The other company Dal chose to supply biomass to its Truro facility, J.D. Irving, is a much better known entity in Nova Scotia.
The New Brunswick-headquartered conglomerate has operations in Canada and the US, and its fingers in everything from agriculture to construction, consumer products to hydro energy, food to forestry and forestry products, retail and distribution, shipbuilding and industrial fabrication, and transportation and logistics.
In a series of eight articles called “House of Irving” for the National Observer in 2016 and 2017, investigative journalist Bruce Livesey looked at how government money flows to Irving corporations, while the Irving empire enjoys the benefits of trusts housed in Bermuda. Writes Livesey:
There’s also been few governmental efforts to pressure the Irvings to pay more taxes. By 1972, KC Irving had moved the ownership of his companies to a Bermuda-based trust to take advantage of its status as an offshore tax haven. KC also moved his home there where he lived in a mansion called Skyline – and avoided paying millions in capital gains taxes. To this day, it’s believed the Irvings control their holdings through Bermuda – where they have 11 various trusts, holding and other companies currently listed there.
“The Irvings were one of the first corporations who in the ‘70s began using tax havens to manage their assets in a way they would put as much profit as they could in offshore bank accounts,” says Alain Deneault, author of the recent book “Canada: A New Tax Haven”.
(J.D. Irving says it’s untrue that control of their company is held offshore, saying they are “owned and controlled from within Canada by Canadian citizens.” When asked about the 11 offshore holding companies, of which at least one is a J.D. Irving subsidiary, the company did not immediately respond.)
The federal government launched suits against the Irvings to make them pay more tax monies, but either lost them in the courts or didn’t pursue the rulings.
So …. not much in common with small local forestry co-operatives in Nova Scotia with a few hundred members whose main interest is trying to keep afloat by sustainably managing their woodlots and ensuring a future for them.
The Examiner asked J.D. Irving how it would ensure that the biomass it supplied would be “sustainable,” whether it would come from ecological or industrial forestry as outlined in the Lahey Report, and where the company would be harvesting the wood that would be supplying the biomass, and in which province(s).
This is the reply from J.D. Irving VP Communications, Anne McInerney:
- The biomass delivered to Dalhousie is bark, a bi-product [sic] from our sawmill in Spring Hill [sic]. There are no full trees converted to biomass.
- The sawlogs delivered to our Truro sawmill are supplied from both Crown and private sources as well as imports from New Brunswick and from a mix of forest harvesting prescriptions.
- Forest products are a renewable and sustainable resource both through ecological and intensive forest management regimes.
- We are proud to support Dalhousie University and the Province of Nova Scotia in its efforts to reach their climate change goals.
The reply raises more questions than it answers.
There is no effort to explain what makes Irving’s biomass “sustainable,” or to answer the question about the source of the wood for the biomass itself, whether it is being obtained from wood harvested with ecological or industrial forestry practices.
There is also the curious admission that the sawlogs delivered to Irving’s Truro sawmill, which will supply sawdust to the biomass plant, may be imported from New Brunswick.
The RFP specifically states that “biomass fuel shall be sourced from within Nova Scotia, with a preferred radius of 150 km” from the plant in Truro.
And the bold declaration that Irving is “proud” to support the university and the province in reaching their climate change goals is equally puzzling, when no one — not Dalhousie or Irving — offered any evidence of how or even if it would.
When Dalhousie University opened its new Biomass Energy Plant on its agricultural campus in Truro in 2018, a Dal News article heaped praise on this “first of a kind” plant on a North American university campus.
The article described the plant as a $26.5-million project that “burns biomass fuel in a thermal oil heater,” and the heat produced “moves a new 1 MW turbine to create electricity,” placing Dal “on the leading edge of sustainable technology and renewable energy practices.”
Dal News also reported that:
Dal partnered with the Province of Nova Scotia on the project through the COMFIT program. In 2014, Dal was approved to join the program, which encouraged community-based renewable energy projects by guaranteeing a rate per kilowatt-hour for the energy that feeds into the province’s distribution electrical grid. Part of Nova Scotia’s ongoing efforts to reach 40 per cent renewable electricity sources by 2020, the COMFIT program was designed to broaden ownership of renewable electricity in Nova Scotia and facilitate community investment in electricity projects.
The Community Feed-in Tariff (COMFIT) program is, according to the province, “part of Nova Scotia’s 2010 Renewable Electricity Plan, which sets out a detailed path to move Nova Scotia away from carbon-based electricity toward sources that are greener and closer to home.”
Dal News reported that the plant was part of Dal’s efforts to “improve the sustainability of its operations and reduce its carbon footprint.”
Speaking at the 2018 opening of the plant, Rochelle Owen, executive director of Dal’s Office of Sustainability, recognized the suppliers at the event, who were then forestry co-operatives, and said, “What we’re trying to do is support local economic development and try to balance our supplies while being innovative.”
But that was then.
Greenhouse gas emissions?
One of the people who commented on the Dal News article when the plant opened in 2018 was retired Dalhousie University biology professor, David Patriquin, who wrote:
Because of the controversies surrounding bioenergy and use of forest biomass in particular, I hope you will publish an annual report with an accounting of feedstocks and actual savings (or net increases) in GHG emissions compared to other operations on campus, i.e. the counterfactual scenario should be the energy sources that are used elsewhere on campus to generate heat and that would be used if this facility were not available. I am guessing those are some combination of electricity (generated from some mix of coal, wind etc), natural gas and fuel oil.
Four years later, not only is there no annual report with the accounting of the feedstocks and actual savings in greenhouse gases (or net increases) — at least none that I am aware of (recall that Dal didn’t grant an interview with anyone to answer questions about the biomass facility), but now the plant, which was to supposed to “support local economic development” and help the university reduce its carbon footprint, has chosen to source its biomass from two extra-provincial forestry industry giants.
Related: The biomass power shuffle. Not one sawmill in Nova Scotia has closed since Northern Pulp shut down; that’s because the province’s large biomass boilers are running flat out
“It should be a model”
Asked for his reaction to Dalhousie’s decision to prepare an RFP and award a contract without emphasizing the source of the biomass and how it was harvested, and without clearly defining what it meant by “sustainable,” David Patriquin replies:
I’m not sure if it’s surprising, but it definitely disappoints me. Not only that, Dalhousie has the capability, because they are experts in the area, to combine [the sourcing of the biomass] with life cycle assessments and address the whole issue of the carbon dioxide emissions in the short and the long term.
Patriquin is the author of the Nova Scotia Forest Notes blog that has looked closely at carbon accounting and bioenergy. In his most recent post he argues:
What we need is full transparency in the accounting of feedstocks and full LCAs (Life Cycle Assessments) of the GHG emissions to settle the claims about whether a particular forest bioenergy operation can be considered genuinely green/carbon neutral) or not.
He tells the Examiner that Dalhousie’s biomass plant on its agricultural campus “should be a model.”
“It should set the standards. They should use it to set the standards for using biomass in Nova Scotia. If they don’t do it, who’s going to do it?” he says. “Dalhousie should use that biomass project to lead the way, and standards for biomass production in Nova Scotia, based on rigorous science and rigorous accounting.”
Patriquin points out that biomass burning for energy is a controversial and highly contentious issue. Patriquin is concerned by the flawed calculations of biomass burning, which fail to take into consideration carbon emissions caused by harvesting practices such as clearcutting that not only impoverish soils, but release carbon that needs a century to replace.
Patriquin says Dalhousie University is a teaching institution that has all the expertise to address the issue of carbon accounting, scientifically and transparently, to make it understandable to everyone.
He thinks the biomass plant should be a subject of thesis research, which could address the “whole sustainability issue.” “It’s complicated,” he says. “But that’s what academics are supposed to address, complicated issues.”
Patriquin assigns “two D’s” to Dalhousie’s decision not to source its the biomass supply from industry giants rather than forestry co-operatives, calling the decision “disappointing and disgraceful.”
 Full disclosure: I am a member of the North Nova Forest Owners Co-op, but had no prior or privileged knowledge or awareness of its contract with or bid to Dalhousie University.
 Dr. William Lahey was invited to comment on the RFP, and politely declined to do so.
 More details are available on Wagner’s Nova Scotia land holdings and activities in my 2017 book, “The Mill – Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.”
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Another extremely important article on biomass that the Halifax Examiner has published, and which I somehow neglected to reference in this piece, is this April 2019 article by Linda Pannozzo: “Forest Confidential: An investigation into Nova Scotia’s biomass harvest data and how the numbers aren’t adding up” https://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/province-house/forest-confidential/?fbclid=IwAR323U1mYclBFIAFd5zsNmgyBrkLzGzTcl_zHxRyHAopEn8rny4b3ax6Wbw
Love your reporting Joan. Thank you. Very comprehensive and refreshing.
This is an excellent example of ideal journalism (as usual here). It dives deep in a sustained way on a low-key, yet important, topic, asks further questions, highlights the wider consequences and perspectives, and references the public interest.
In short, informing the public on what those with the most power would like to remain hidden.