A few months ago I reviewed a film that has been circulating the province about the growing use of forest biomass as a form of so-called renewable energy. The film — Burned: Are Trees the New Coal? — reported on how the biomass industry sells itself as green by making two bogus claims: it uses only wood waste or otherwise non-merchantable trees, and it is carbon-neutral, so therefore can be burned to help countries meet their greenhouse gas emissions targets.

In early March of this year, plaintiffs from six countries filed a lawsuit against the European Union for “ignoring the science on forest bioenergy and promoting false climate solutions.” The lawsuit specifically challenges the EU’s inclusion of forest biomass as a renewable and carbon-neutral energy source.

In my review of the film I wanted to include the most recent data on biomass harvesting in Nova Scotia and turned to the place where the Department of Lands and Forestry (DLF) reports these figures, but as I delved deeper into some of the numbers, I was confounded on many levels, found I had more questions than answers, and came up against too many brick walls.

If nothing else, my foray into the murky world of biomass reporting should put the accuracy of forest harvest data in this province seriously in doubt.

The Registry of Buyers

The annual Registry of Buyers is not an easy report to decipher and from my experience covering forest issues for some years, it is rarely mentioned in media reports. But it is important because it’s the only place the public can access annual data on harvest volumes broken down by primary forest product category. A primary forest product essentially refers to what the wood was being cut and acquired for in the first place. For instance, was it purchased as pulpwood, studwood/ sawlogs, veneer, fuelwood, energy wood, etc.?

Every registered buyer of a primary forest product is required to report the volumes it buys each year.

In 2017, there were 167 buyers registered and 129 of them were active. But company names are not attached to purchases or to specific volume amounts for reasons the department deems “commercially sensitive.”

According to the DLF, the intent of the Registry is to keep track of the volumes of wood cut and acquired by registered buyers, including sawmills, pulp mills, exporters, and energy generation facilities, and that by collecting this information, the DLF says it can estimate future demand for primary forest products and ensure sustainable harvests.

The first calendar year reported in the Registry was 1999, part of the province’s strategy then to get a handle on what was being cut on both private and crown lands. By the late 1990s the Department recognized that as federal funding for silviculture declined, cutting on private lands was not sustainable and forests were being clearcut before they had a chance to mature — a recipe for a future wood shortage.

The front page of 2017 Registry of Buyers Annual Report

Part of the problem at the time was that the province really had no idea what was going on, particularly on private lands.

A report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy noted that poor and uncoordinated record-keeping meant that harvesting statistics were highly inaccurate, and that actual harvesting levels likely exceeded what was being reported. So the department did two things: it introduced Forest Sustainability Regulations that required silviculture to be carried out based on actual volumes harvested from private lands, and it drafted new regulations to require buyers of forest products to register with the province and provide an annual statistical return that would be reported in an annual Registry of Buyers report. [1]About 10 years before the Registry was created, the Department of Natural Resources (thre predecessor agency to the Department of Lands and Forestry) set a goal of doubling forest production by … Continue reading

There’s no doubt that this kind of information is crucial to good forest management in the province, but only if the reporting is accurate.

Biomass harvesting took the plunge, says Registry

The term “biomass” is not listed as a “primary forest product” in the provincial Registry of Buyers, though there are product categories that are supposed to capture it. Before 2015, “fuelwood” was the term used and based on Registry data collected for 2014, 11% of the harvest in that year — just over 400,000 cubic metres of the total 3.6 million cubic metres — was fuelwood, for both power generation and for export.

But since then a new term — “energy wood” — was introduced to the Registry. From 2015 onwards, the product categories that refer to what we think of as “biomass” in the Registry are “fuelwood” and “energy wood.” [2]Energy wood is defined in the Registry of Buyers as “roundwood intended to be used in a facility designed to produce energy and includes wood destined for cogeneration facilities.” Fuelwood is … Continue reading

According to the Registry’s annual reports, in 2015, fuelwood and energy wood combined increased slightly to 11.4% of the harvest volume but then it started a downward trend, dropping to 5.7% in 2016, and then to 2.4% in 2017, the most recent year available.

More specifically — and the language is very specific when it comes to the Registry — in 2017, 2.6% of the total harvest was acquired by companies registered as energy generation businesses: Nova Scotia Power, Brooklyn Power, Hefler Forest Products, and Cellufuel.[3]In 2013 Hefler Forest Products received approval from the provincial government for a small 3.1 MW biomass project under the Community Feed-in Tariff (COMFIT) Program. Biomass amounts are … Continue reading

When it’s broken down by primary forest product category, the amount acquired by all buyers as “energy wood” was 78,779 m3, or 2% of the total harvest, and another 1,600 m3 was “fuelwood” — so that when fuelwood and energy wood are combined it amounted to 80,390 m3 or 2.4% of the total provincial harvest. [4]Why doesn’t the 2.6% acquired by energy generation businesses match the percent harvested as energy wood and fuelwood? According to the DLF, any company of one business type, such as energy … Continue reading

So, according to the Registry, cutting for biomass is on a steep decline in this province. But by many accounts, including this one, biomass as a source of “green energy” is on an upward trend on a global scale — set to increase by 250% in the next decade — already having doubled in the previous 10 years. Is it possible that while the trends in biomass harvesting are increasing everywhere else in the world, they are plummeting here in Nova Scotia, a province that also very recently saw the construction of Nova Scotia Power’s $200 million biomass plant in Point Tupper?

But there is another important observation to be made.

When you look at exports reported in the 2017 Registry (provided in the table below) they are all in the product categories of pulpwood, studwood/ sawlogs, or OSB wood/ veneer logs. So, for instance, 98.6% of the primary forest products exported in 2017 was acquired as pulpwood. [5]According to the DLF, this would include pulpwood acquired and converted to chips for export markets in the manufacture of pulp, paper, and MDF (medium-density fibreboard). In 2016 16% of the primary forest products exported were acquired as fuelwood and energy wood — headed to facilities designed to produce energy or in non-residential buildings for generating heat. But in 2017 it appears that something strange happened in that product category. Apparently none of the exports were acquired as fuelwood or energy wood (biomass).

How could it be that none of the primary forest exports in 2017 were acquired as fuelwood or energy wood? Surely there were exports of both.

From Registry of Buyers for calendar year 2017, p. 4. The DLF said that there was a “minor error” in the last category and it should read: “Fuelwood/ Firewood/ Energy Wood.”

I turned to the DLF and asked them about the incongruous 2017 data. Spokesperson Bruce Nunn attributed the decline in biomass harvesting to “government changing the regulations in 2016 to end a legal requirement to operate the plant at Port Hawkesbury as a must-run facility.” As for the exports, spokesperson Krista Higdon explained that “Offshore markets are constantly changing and we would expect that companies who export wood products are monitoring markets to find the most suitable ones for the products they can purchase.”

Pour yourself a coffee. This might take a while.

Corporate privacy protections trump public’s right to know

In October 2013 a formidable biomass player entered the provincial field. Running at full capacity, Nova Scotia Power’s newly built $200 million biomass facility in Point Tupper can produce 63 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 50,000 homes. To do that, it requires the input of 50 truckloads of wood a day or 730,000 tonnes a year. [6]Figures based on NSPI Fact Sheet.

As I reported here, in early 2016 the utility announced that burning biomass helped it “set a renewable energy record,” moving “toward a lower carbon future.” In 2015, 27% of the electricity generated in the province came from renewable sources, exceeding the legislated requirement of 25%. Most of the renewable power was from wind, hydro, and tidal, and 3% was from burning biomass — organic material from the forest, the majority in the form of trees. Back then, NSP had predicted that biomass would account for 7% of the electricity generated by 2020.

But sustained public outcry over the use of biomass for energy generation zeroed in on the legal requirement to run the 60 megawatt facility 24/7. This “must-run” status provided what are called “firm renewables” to the grid.

Back in 2016, it was explained to me that the biomass facility was designated a “must run” because the Port Hawkesbury Paper (PHP) mill next door needed the steam to operate. With the biomass plant running constantly, there were times when the electricity demand in the province was low enough that everything got ramped down and truly renewable sources, such as wind, got “dumped” because there was nowhere to send it.

A look inside the blast furnace at Nova Scotia Power’s biomass plant, photo courtesy Ray Plourde

According to NSP figures, in 2014 (the first full year the plant operated) it purchased 440,500 tonnes of biomass — nearly 60% (257,700 tonnes) was primary or cut from the forest. The remainder was made up of wood bark and sawmill waste or what’s called “secondary biomass” or residuals. In 2015, the plant’s primary biomass purchases were similar — 266,600 tonnes — but in that year accounted for 76% of the total (351,700 tonnes) purchased. Critics sensed that the pressure to feed the boiler was not going to support good forestry practices and ultimately the direct and collateral damage that resulted proved the critics right — deforestation, the chipping of hardwood sawlogs (some old growth), and severe damage to forest soils were among the worrisome outcomes. [7]Evidence of deforestation surfaced when it was revealed that some logging contractors who were desperate to meet the high biomass volume commitments to feed the boiler were resorting to unscrupulous … Continue reading

Stephen McNeil’s government said it was responding to this crescendo of concern when in April of 2016 it amended the Nova Scotia Renewable Electricity Regulations ending the legal requirement to operate the plant in Point Tupper as a must-run facility. This would reduce the use of primary forest biomass for generating electricity. In 2016 the plant operated as a must-run for the first four months of the year and afterwards on an “economic dispatch” basis or as-needed basis. Essentially, NSP operates the biomass plant when it’s the most economic choice for customers. [8]I was curious about how the end of the must-run requirement was affecting PHP: David Rodenhiser, media spokesperson for NSP tells me that “PHP makes the decision on when to operate their … Continue reading

According to NSP data, by 2017 its purchases of primary biomass dropped more than 42-fold to 6,300 tonnes. Including secondary biomass, it totaled a mere 18,200 tonnes.

Recall that the Registry of Buyers indicated that in 2017 primary purchases by energy generation businesses accounted for 2.6% (85,606 m3) of the harvest. Bearing in mind that the volumes reported in the Registry are an aggregate of all of the energy generation businesses in the province, with NSP being by far the largest, it’s still hard to believe the numbers. If we compare the volume (6,557 m3) NSP says it purchased for primary biomass in 2017 with what the Registry is reporting, then NSP accounted for only 8% of the purchases in that year. [9]The metric tonnes used by NSP are not equivalent to cubic metres used by DLF (one measures weight and the other volume). Conversion factors also differ for softwood and hardwood. But a rough … Continue reading

In an attempt to make some sense of these figures, I contacted Brooklyn Power to find out how much primary forest biomass it purchased in 2017. The Liverpool power company is owned by NSP’s parent company Emera, and sells power to NSP. It has the capacity to produce 30 megawatts of electricity (about half of what NSP can produce). But when it comes to what Brooklyn buys or burns, it’s an entity the public is allowed to know virtually nothing about. “Precise” amounts of biomass purchased each year is deemed “commercially sensitive,” says Emera’s media contact. The amount “depends on how much the plant runs…I can tell you the average for 2015-2017 has been a little under 150,000 tonnes annually — the vast majority of which is wood waste from nearby mill operations.”

Without annual figures or, more importantly, a breakdown showing the amount of biomass that is primary (from the forest), the number is not very useful. Emera did not respond to any further questions.

I also tried to find out how much biomass Hefler Forest Products might burn annually. In 2013 the company received approval from the government for a relatively small 3.1 MW biomass project under the Community Feed-in Tariff (COMFIT) Program. As part of the approval process the company had to submit an environmental impact statement, which likely contains information about the amounts of primary biomass it required. I contacted the Department of Energy and Mines to get a copy of it, but was informed that the application, which contains “commercially sensitive information” cannot be released. “The environmental impact statement is part of the application so it’s also confidential.”

So I looked for other sources of provincial information and came across some at Statistics Canada. But when I saw what it reported for how much biomass was burned in the province and how much money was spent on it, it confused me even more.

In 2017, Nova Scotia’s electric utility thermal plants consumed 202,139 tonnes of wood, double what they had consumed the year before. [10]Statistics Canada CANSIM table 25-10-0017-01 And they spent more than $6 million on biomass (wood), up from $3.5 million the year before. [11]Statistics Canada CANSIM table 25-10-0018-01

To be clear, Stats Can does not distinguish between primary and secondary biomass amounts, which makes it difficult to draw any firm conclusions. But it’s still fair to say that none of it jives with the numbers NSP reported to me: that in 2017 its purchases of all biomass dropped five-fold from the year before. 

When I pointed out to NSP that Stats Can data about biomass consumption and spending were not aligned with the biomass numbers that it reported to me, it replied that biomass product may not necessarily be used in the same year it is purchased and that Stats Can numbers were for all electric utility thermal plants. It was impossible for me to parse out the data for each utility because the data are “commercially sensitive” and could “impact price negotiations, adding costs for customers.”

Then to confuse things even more, there’s NSPs annual report to the UARB in which it reports the value of the biomass consumed, but not the purchases made. It reported that in 2017 the plant consumed $5.9 million worth of biomass. However, as David Rodenhiser explained to me, the figure has no bearing on the purchases: 2017 biomass consumption was “mainly drawn from existing biomass inventories, rather than 2017 biomass purchases.” But if we believe what NSP reports the biomass plant purchased in previous years, combined with the data it provided to the UARB, it is hard to imagine there was much of an “inventory” left.

I don’t have the answers, but feel like something is amiss.

When we compare NSP figures and the Registry data, it appears NSP accounted for only 8% of the biomass purchases by energy generation businesses in 2017. So, who purchased the remaining 92 percent?

Also confounding is that between 2016 and 2017, NSP filings to the UARB indicate that its biomass consumption dropped by about half while Stats Can is saying that spending and consumption of biomass by all electric utilities in the province nearly doubled.

The other thing that doesn’t make any sense is that except for 2017, the values of biomass consumed reported by NSP to the UARB are well above the values reported by Stats Can, which are for all electric utility thermal plants in the province. This defies logic.

But given how “commercially sensitive” the information is to the private-sector utilities involved, getting to the bottom of it is hardly possible.

Zeroing in on that Zero

Now to return to the issue of biomass exports — another aspect of the 2017 Registry of Buyers report that requires further scrutiny. As previously mentioned, the report indicates that none of the primary forest exports in 2017 were acquired as fuelwood or energy wood whereas in previous years there were always quantities reported.

Great Northern Timber (GNT) is one of the province’s largest exporters of primary wood products, mainly dealing in hardwood chips and biomass. It’s part of the WestFor consortium — a group of 13 mills that jointly hold one western Crown harvesting licence. GNT has hardwood pulpwood allocations on Crown land and sends shiploads of hardwood chips and pellets from the ports in Halifax and in Sheet Harbour to Europe and elsewhere.

The company’s web site is pretty clear: “We harvest, process and manufacture woodchips and biomass and export them around the world.”

A video of in forest chipping from the company’s Web site shows how the trees are cut, chipped, and loaded into trucks destined for the shipping terminal in Sheet Harbour. By definition, this makes the chips a primary forest product but not all of it is destined for industrial heat or energy generation. Chips are also used for pulp and paper, and for engineered wood products like fibreboard.

Great Northern Timber’s chipping facility in Sheet Harbour, photo courtesy Joan Baxter.

The company’s president, Tony Mee, was invited to speak at the International Wood Fiber Resource and Trade Conference held in Durban, South Africa last September, an event organized by RISI, an information provider for the global forest products industry. Mee was part of a panel discussing the “North American Woodchip Supply.” I was unable to get a copy of Mee’s presentation (if there was one) or a transcript of the panel discussion he participated in, but the trends that were publicly presented reflected what I had read elsewhere: European biomass demand in 2017 amounted to 16 million tonnes of pellets and chips, and this was only expected to increase.

So why wasn’t this surging demand being reflected in the Registry’s most recent biomass export data? To get a sense of trends in export shipments of primary forest biomass I contacted GNT several weeks ago on two separate occasions, once by email and once by phone. But no one got back to me.

In 2010, Mee provided some indication of the company’s production and export numbers in a letter he wrote to the province’s Utility and Review Board (UARB), expressing his concern about the proposed NSP biomass plant at Point Tupper and how he felt it would “devastate” his business and lead to its “eventual closure.” He describes his company as having developed “export sales for underutilized hardwood and softwood fibre,” and “providing an outlet for the surplus low quality wood.”

In other words, because stands are being cut on shorter and shorter rotations, the only way this could be commercially viable is for there to be a market for the younger and smaller hardwood trees that make up a high percentage of the stand. These are precisely the kinds of trees GNT relies on to supply its chip and biomass export markets.

“We process approximately 250,000 GMT [240,750 m3] of hardwood per annum. This has declined from a high of 420,000 GMT [404,460 m3] several years ago.” The company’s website says it has a production capacity of 400,000 tonnes/ year.

In 2017, GNT added pellets to its product offering when it purchased Scotia Atlantic Biomass, a pellet plant in Upper Musquodoboit, which has a production capacity of 120,000 tonnes a year. In an article that appeared in Biomass Magazine, GNT said the pellet facility would be relying “predominantly” on residual mill products (sawmill waste) for its feedstock. However, it was reported back in 2010, when the mill was owned by Enligna, a German-based renewable energy company, that the pellet mill sourced about 60% of its fibre from logging on private land as well as Crown allocations — of mostly hardwood, the material that’s “not marketable.” In 2014, the pellet company was part of the newly formed WestFor consortium and in the first year of a 10-year fibre allocation on Crown land received a sizable allocation of 50,000 tonnes of roundwood for that that year alone. [12]In October of 2014 the DLF announced its plan for the western Crown lands and released 10-year fibre allocations that for the first time would be based on a percentage of available harvest rather … Continue reading

If GNT has a total production capacity in the vicinity of 520,000 tonnes, and if biomass markets in Europe are burgeoning, how can the Registry numbers be correct? Has something happened to the markets?

So I decided to look into the exports.

According to the Halifax Port Authority, which also manages the Port of Sheet Harbour on behalf of Nova Scotia Business Inc., there have been a number of bulk export shipments of wood chips out of Sheet Harbour: nine shipments in 2016, eight in 2017, and eight in 2018, all destined for Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

I wanted to know the destinations for the cargo — as that could provide clues about what the product was being used for — but Lane Farguson, media relations manager, couldn’t disclose that kind of information because it’s “proprietary.” Farguson could only say that each vessel carried somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 tonnes of product and that in 2017 alone, a total of 100,000 tonnes (roughly 96,300 m3) of chips were exported through Sheet Harbour.

In addition, between 2015 and 2018, there were four bulk shipments of wood pellets through the Port of Halifax: two in 2015, one in 2016 and one in 2017. Farguson confirmed those shipments were also destined for European markets.

To find out more detail about these exports I turned to the Canadian International Merchandise Trade Database — the most detailed trade information that exists, listing quantities and values of exported commodities from Canadian provinces along with countries of destination. The original source of the data are import/export documents collected by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which are then reported to Statistics Canada. Again, company names and specific destinations are not provided.

A customized search for exports from Nova Scotia found that roughly $20 million worth of hardwood chips, fuelwood, and pellets were shipped in 2017:

  • 121 tonnes of wood pellets (valued at $43,870) to the US
  • 12,800 tonnes of wood pellets (valued at $1.9 million) to the UK [13]In 2015, Nova Scotia exports of pellets to the UK exceeded 58,450 tonnes worth more than $10.5 million; in 2016, 27,500 tonnes were exported valued at $5.1 million. In 2018, exports dropped to 4,600 … Continue reading
  • 667 tonnes of wood pellets (valued at $120 thousand) to Belgium [14]2017 appears to be the first year Belgium received exports of pellets from NS. In 2018 it increased to 718 tonnes valued at $133,000.
  • 233 tonnes of wood pellets (valued at $43,000) to Italy [15]2017 appears to be the first year Italy received exports of pellets from NS. In 2018 it increased substantially to 14,611 tonnes valued at $2.5 million.
  • $113,000 worth of fuel wood to United Arab Emirates (quantity not provided)
  • 116,000 tonnes of hardwood chips (valued at $11.7 million) to Turkey [16]Export data indicate that hardwood chips were also exported to Turkey in 2015, 2016, and 2018: 140,000 tonnes ($12.3 million); 148,500 tonnes ($13.8 million); and 160,000 tonnes ($15.6 million) … Continue reading
  • 17,300 tonnes of hardwood chips (valued at $1.8 million) to Iceland [17]Export data indicates that hardwood chips were also exported to Iceland in 2015, 2016, and 2018: 16,000 tonnes ($1.4 million); 20,600 tonnes ($2 million); and 15,200 tonnes ($1.4 million) … Continue reading
  • 36,000 tonnes of hardwood chips (valued at $5.3 million) to the US [18]Export data indicates that hardwood chips were not exported to the US in 2015, or 2016, but in 2018, 16,626 tonnes ($3.9 million worth) were.

The CBSA data indicates that export shipments of these products increased in 2018, valued at more than $24 million.

Let’s take a look at these products more closely. It’s very likely that the wood pellets going to the US, UK, Belgium, and Italy, are being burned in an industrial facility, possibly in biomass plants. [19]Italy has 350 biomass plants—one is listed on GNT’s fibre-supply market list.

When I saw that nearly $2 million worth of wood pellets were exported to the UK in 2017, I immediately thought of the DRAX power station, that country’s largest utility, generating in excess of 3,000 megawatts of electricity. The station has been gradually converting its coal-fired generating units to biomass, in the form of pellets and was featured prominently in the film Burned because it relied heavily (60%) on pellets coming from Louisiana and Mississippi — the region that’s referred to as “ground zero” for the biomass industry’s wood pellet production.

But DRAX also imports 24% of its biomass/ pellet feedstock from Canada. Jessica Gorton, press officer for the company, tells me that everything they buy from Canada is certified by the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP), which has developed its very own certification system designed specifically for woody biomass in the form of wood pellets and wood chips, used in industrial, large-scale energy production. She says there was only one SBP-certified plant in Nova Scotia that DRAX has purchased from thus far and that was Shaw Eastern Embers. She wouldn’t divulge the quantities.

DRAX power station, United Kingdom. Wiki commons.

Documents filed on the SBP site indicate that while Shaw Eastern Embers sources and manufactures its pellets in Nova Scotia, it ships them out of the Port of Belledune in New Brunswick, so while they wouldn’t account for any of the pellet exports from Halifax Harbour, they are a NS company and would be included in the CBSA export data, and likely account for the $2 million worth of pellets destined for the UK. But since Shaw claims it sources its wood “solely” from sawmill residuals (sawdust, shavings, etc.) and only purchases secondary forest products, it wouldn’t have to report primary forest purchases to the provincial registry.

Great Northern Timber is another story, however. Its pellet plant became SBP-certified in late 2018 and according to documents on the SBP site, it produces industrial wood pellets for export to European power and utilities, and while it utilizes “mill residues” it also uses “low grade roundwood material that could not be utilized in other productive and economical ways within the province of Nova Scotia.”

GNTs pellets are for industrial heating/ power purposes and a portion is derived from primary forest products. We know there were bulk shipments out of the Port of Halifax every year except for 2018, destined for Europe. So why not reported in the Registry?

Now let’s turn our attention to the exported hardwood chips. These accounted for most of the 2017 (and 2018) shipments and are very likely primary forest products, given that GNT has the capability of harvesting trees and chipping them. But, the intended purpose of these chips is harder to decipher. In other words, were they being exported to Turkey, the US, and Iceland for use as biomass? In order to answer this question, we’d need to know exactly where the chips were going.

A couple of years ago I happened to take a partial screen shot of a list provided on the GNT Web site of its “fibre supply markets.” The company site has been revamped and this list has since disappeared, but it does provide some clues as to where some of these pellets and chips might be going.

Screenshot of Great Northern Timber’s “fibre supply markets” taken from an older version of its website.

A scan of the businesses listed in Turkey indicate that any chips being sent there would most likely be used to make particle or fibreboard for furniture and flooring. There are biomass plants in Turkey but they appear to use agricultural biomass and animal waste for their feedstock.

Possible destinations in Iceland do not appear on the partial GNT “fibre supply market” list, however, Iceland is not a place where they’d be burning biomass for energy generation. Almost all of the electricity in Iceland is produced by hydropower (73%) and geothermal (27%) with a tiny fraction coming from fossil fuels. But according to Saving Iceland, an organization that has been keeping track of Iceland’s environmental record — including the effects of river damming and the development of heavy industries such as aluminum smelters — wood chips are used at the PCC silicon metal production plant in Bakki, Húsavík in northeast Iceland, which just opened up in 2018. Silicon metal is used to produce high-strength aluminum alloys needed in the auto industry, for instance. The company website describes the process of producing liquid silicon metal and it involves burning quartzite, coal, and wood chips in an electric arc furnace to a temperature of 2,000 degrees Celsius. A spokesperson for Saving Iceland tells me United Silicon operated another silicon metal factory in Helguvík in southwest Iceland but it was shut down in 2018 “due to high pollution levels and public anger in the nearby township of Keflavík. They may also have used wood chips but it is not confirmed,” he says.

The PCC silicon metal production plant. Photo: PCC website.

Could the silicon metal plant be the Icelandic destination for GNTs hardwood chips? Possibly, but short of sneaking onto one of its barges, confidentiality protections make it almost impossible to find out for sure. If it is, then nearly $2 million worth of primary forest biomass in the form of fuelwood was exported from NS in 2017, the same year the Registry says none of the exports were acquired as fuelwood or energy wood.

Trade data indicate that shipping of pellets and hardwood chips out of Nova Scotia ports has been pretty steady. So what’s going on? Why aren’t these exports, some of them most likely of fuelwood and energy wood, reported in the Registry?

Biomass Morass

In an attempt to understand the Registry and how things are reported, I spoke to a number of people in the forest industry, but none were willing to speak on the record, afraid of the repercussions. Registry numbers could be misreported because buyers don’t quite understand the definitions, was one theory; numbers could also be fudged, another offered, to make it look like there’s a lot less biomass coming directly from the forests — a result of the public outcry over the practice.

Even though numbers don’t seem to add up, it’s almost impossible to prove anything. Individual company names are not attached to the amounts that appear in the Registry and the Department of Lands and Forestry never audits registered buyers’ self-reported forest product purchases.

According to DLF spokesperson Krista Higdon, in the 18 years that the Registry has been in existence, there has been “no formal auditing of reports by Registered Buyers.” Higdon does add however, that “experienced and knowledgeable staff check all records that are submitted and contact Registered Buyers to understand any significant changes. They also visit Registered Buyers through the year to stay up-to-date with operations.”

So how come the Registry shows no exports of fuelwood or energy wood in 2017 when we know, based on actual export data, that there were some?

My guess is it has something to do with the way biomass is being reported.

According to DLF, the way the Registry works is that the product is reported by the first registered buyer in the original category when it was acquired. So, if a buyer is acquiring primary forest products to be exported for the generation of energy or heat in a non-residential facility it should be reported as fuelwood, fuel chips, or energy wood. If the buyer purchases wood to export chips for the making of fibreboard, the quantities should be reported in the pulpwood category.

These are the rules. But let’s say a buyer wanted to downplay purchases of a product, such as biomass, couldn’t he or she just call it something else?

For instance, I provided the DLF with the following scenario: Say a sawmill purchases low grade studwood/ sawlogs for the purposes of manufacturing lumber but also intends to chip some of the roundwood to send to a pellet mill. What would the chips be categorized for the purposes of the Registry? The products acquired would be reported as studwood/ sawlogs, Higdon tells me.

Similarly, if a buyer purchased low-quality wood with the intention of shipping it to their chipping plant to make pulp-quality chips or biomass-quality chips, the original purchase would probably be categorized as “pulpwood,” regardless of what it ended up being sold as.

The Registry does not track the end use of logs.

Higdon says buyers are provided every year with definitions for both primary and secondary forest products “so that [they] don’t make their own interpretations and provide consistent information.”

When I asked about how the department reconciles the Registry’s reporting of zero exports of primary wood products as fuelwood or energy wood in 2017 with the fact that there were exports of wood chips and pellets in that year, some of it undoubtedly for energy or heat generation in a non-residential facility overseas, the reply was less than satisfying:

Instead of acknowledging that there is clearly an issue with how these products were reported, the reply completely missed the point: “Wood pellets are a secondary forest product and is not tracked by destination,” says DLF spokesperson Lisa Jarrett. “The only products tracked for export by destination are the primary forest products.” The Registry of Buyers does not reconcile reported information with the Port Authorities or Canadian Border Services.”

So I re-worded my question: “According to the Registry’s definitions, if the pellets were even partly derived from primary sources (roundwood, for instance), then shouldn’t that acquisition have been categorized as “primary” as fuel wood or fuel chips by the buyer?”

In a word, yes. “If a pellet mill acquires any primary forest products, they would be reported to the Registry as fuel wood or fuel chips,” replied Jarrett.

But given that this didn’t happen means there must be a reporting problem.

Mary Booth is the director and founder of the US-based Partnership for Policy Integrity. She also served as Senior Science and Policy Advisor to the EU biomass legal suit I mentioned, and provided a witness statement in the case. I asked her about reporting of biomass harvesting and if in her experience she’s found reporting to be accurate and transparent.

Without mincing any words: “In my experience, they lie like rugs when it comes to the actual types of fuels used.” Booth says that mostly the lying is around residues.

“There’s a common idea that burning residues is ok because this is material that would decompose anyway if it’s not burned for energy. But in order for this to be true and for the carbon impact to be reduced, it has to be genuine residues, not whole trees that they harvest and label residues.”

In other words, reporting in the biomass industry is not known for its accuracy. And if the Registry of Buyers is all we have to estimate a future wood supply and ensure sustainable harvests, then its ability to achieve these goals hinges on a couple things that seem to be in very short supply: truth and transparency.

References

References
1 About 10 years before the Registry was created, the Department of Natural Resources (thre predecessor agency to the Department of Lands and Forestry) set a goal of doubling forest production by 2025, to 6.2 million cubic metres. In 2006, Nova Scotia’s Auditor General (AG) reported on whether the department was “appropriately accountable for the sustainability of the timber supply” — which is one of the department’s key responsibilities. In his report, Jacques Lapointe noted that information was missing and that while the province had managed to double the harvests in half that time — in 2004 nearly 7 million cubic metres had been harvested — it had “not publicly reported progress in achieving this goal, nor provided assessment of whether the increase in production is one cause of its concerns about sustainability.” In fact, the report noted numerous areas where the department had failed to report publicly—on long term trend information, on the state of the forests, and on progress toward sustainability goals.
2 Energy wood is defined in the Registry of Buyers as “roundwood intended to be used in a facility designed to produce energy and includes wood destined for cogeneration facilities.” Fuelwood is defined as: “Any roundwood intended for the use of generating heat for buildings other than residential housing, or for the production of other heating products such as wood pellets, bricks etc.”
3 In 2013 Hefler Forest Products received approval from the provincial government for a small 3.1 MW biomass project under the Community Feed-in Tariff (COMFIT) Program. Biomass amounts are confidential. I wrote about Cellufuel here. In a nutshell, it was a demonstration-scale project set up in the old Bowater Mersey mill in Liverpool that claimed it was the first in the world to be able to turn forest biomass into diesel. It received millions in subsidies from the feds and the province. According to the Registry of Buyers, Cellufuel was a minor player, acquiring between 1 and 10,000 cubic metres of energy wood in 2017. However, The Examiner reported that by the summer of that year the company had shut down, “temporarily” according to its president Chris Hooper.
4 Why doesn’t the 2.6% acquired by energy generation businesses match the percent harvested as energy wood and fuelwood? According to the DLF, any company of one business type, such as energy generation, may acquire primary forest products in a different category, such as sawlogs, if they also operate a sawmill. The DLF would not provide any company-specific information, but this would appear to apply to Hefler Forest Products – it is registered as an energy generation business but it’s also a registered as sawmill, so some of what it acquired in 2017 would have been sawlogs, which likely accounts for the difference between the 2.6 percent in Table 1 and 2.4 percent in Table 2 of the Registry.
5 According to the DLF, this would include pulpwood acquired and converted to chips for export markets in the manufacture of pulp, paper, and MDF (medium-density fibreboard).
6 Figures based on NSPI Fact Sheet.
7 Evidence of deforestation surfaced when it was revealed that some logging contractors who were desperate to meet the high biomass volume commitments to feed the boiler were resorting to unscrupulous deals with woodlot owners, getting them to convert their forestland to agricultural land so that buffer zones, required on forestland, would not apply, and harvest volumes could be maximized. Hardwood manufacturers were also going out of business, partly because hardwood sawlogs that would normally have been selected out from a harvest and sent to the businesses were instead being chipped for the biomass plant. It was also reported by logger Danny George earlier last year that old growth forests in the Lawlor Lake area near Guysborough had been cut to feed the Port Hawkesbury biomass boiler. The Department of Lands and Forestry confirmed that this error had indeed been made, vowing to ensure that pre-treatment assessments of forest stands are done correctly. However, critics argue that as long as the assessments are done by contractors who are hired by industry and therefore beholden to them, the problem will continue.
8 I was curious about how the end of the must-run requirement was affecting PHP: David Rodenhiser, media spokesperson for NSP tells me that “PHP makes the decision on when to operate their papermaking equipment, when to be supplied with steam, and how much electricity to draw from the grid.” He says “the biomass plant does not supply PHP directly with electricity. Production from the biomass plant flows directly onto the provincial electricity grid, and PHP draws electricity from the grid. When NSP has decided not to dispatch the biomass plant and the turbine is idle, PHP has an option to supply fuel to run the turbine and receive a credit for the electricity produced and sent to the grid.”
9 The metric tonnes used by NSP are not equivalent to cubic metres used by DLF (one measures weight and the other volume). Conversion factors also differ for softwood and hardwood. But a rough calculation using DLF conversion factors yields a total of 6,556 m3 of primary biomass purchases in 2017: Of the 6,300 tonnes reported purchased as primary forest biomass in 2017, 3,900 tonnes was hardwood and 2,400 tonnes was softwood. Using the conversion factors provided by the DLF for softwood: 1 tonne = 1.167 m3 (1 m3 = .857 tonne) and for hardwood: 1 tonne = 0.963 m3 (1 m3=1.038 tonne) we get roughly 3,756 m3 of hardwood and 2,800 m3 of softwood, a total of 6,556 m3.
10 Statistics Canada CANSIM table 25-10-0017-01
11 Statistics Canada CANSIM table 25-10-0018-01
12 In October of 2014 the DLF announced its plan for the western Crown lands and released 10-year fibre allocations that for the first time would be based on a percentage of available harvest rather than on a fixed volume. Sixteen mills — forming the WestFor consortium — would jointly hold one western Crown harvesting licence.
13 In 2015, Nova Scotia exports of pellets to the UK exceeded 58,450 tonnes worth more than $10.5 million; in 2016, 27,500 tonnes were exported valued at $5.1 million. In 2018, exports dropped to 4,600 tonnes valued at $733,000.
14 2017 appears to be the first year Belgium received exports of pellets from NS. In 2018 it increased to 718 tonnes valued at $133,000.
15 2017 appears to be the first year Italy received exports of pellets from NS. In 2018 it increased substantially to 14,611 tonnes valued at $2.5 million.
16 Export data indicate that hardwood chips were also exported to Turkey in 2015, 2016, and 2018: 140,000 tonnes ($12.3 million); 148,500 tonnes ($13.8 million); and 160,000 tonnes ($15.6 million) respectively.
17 Export data indicates that hardwood chips were also exported to Iceland in 2015, 2016, and 2018: 16,000 tonnes ($1.4 million); 20,600 tonnes ($2 million); and 15,200 tonnes ($1.4 million) respectively.
18 Export data indicates that hardwood chips were not exported to the US in 2015, or 2016, but in 2018, 16,626 tonnes ($3.9 million worth) were.
19 Italy has 350 biomass plants—one is listed on GNT’s fibre-supply market list.

Linda Pannozzo

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning author and freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia. email: linda@halifaxexaminer.ca; Website: lindapannozzo.ca

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  1. Lots to sift through here and I’ll want to spend more time on the pellet side of the story. However, the Stats Canada numbers on consumption and price might help get a handle on the NSP side. Stats Can figures indicate a price of about $30 a tonne. Apply that to the $5.9 million value of the biomass consumed in 2017 and you get consumption of 197,000 tonnes, indicating the NSP biomass plant ran at about 30% capacity. That would be consistent with biomass story so far and the generation numbers shown in the FAM filing.

  2. Good article. I have a contact in the European biomass power generating business.
    No government will put a stop to the industry because too many jobs are at stake in rural Nova Scotia.