In the opening scene of the documentary Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?, Jeff Turner patrols the dark, tannin-stained waters of the Blackwater and Nottoway River system in Southampton County, Virginia. He’s a “river keeper” and has been doing this for nearly two decades, keeping an eye on threats to the health of the rivers and their watersheds.
These rivers eventually join to form the Chowan River, which empties into Albermarle Sound, a tidal estuary in North Carolina. They are also part of the drainage basin of numerous wetlands containing a unique and disappearing forest ecosystem called Bottomland hardwoods — forests so obviously connected to the river systems they surround because they are flooded by them for a good portion of the year.
Two centuries ago, these naturally treed river swamps of gum, oak and bald cypress, with their distinctive flaring trunks, knees and aerial roots, covered nearly 30 million acres of the Southeastern US. Today more than 60 per cent of the original Bottomland ecosystem is gone, mainly a result of the land being converted for agriculture.
But of what remains of the Bottomland forests, Turner is worried about a new threat — one that arrived on the scene within the last decade and is driving the recent spate of forest liquidation: wood pellet production for the biomass industry, much of it for export to Europe.
Documentary filmmakers Alan Dater and Lisa Merton begin the film with Turner in the Southeastern US and the plight of the coastal plain because it’s a region that’s become “ground zero” for the biomass industry’s wood pellet production — easy access to forests and to the eastern ports for shipping to European markets gives it that economic edge. The film draws attention to a Southampton biomass firm, Enviva Pellets — an company that produces 750,000 metric tonnes of wood pellets annually and originally sold itself to the community on the premise that it would only be using sawdust and wood waste but ended up cutting whole forests as their primary source of biomass material.
Here in Nova Scotia, we have three large-scale biomass burning facilities. The largest is Nova Scotia Power’s 60-megawatt generator in Port Hawkesbury, where 650,000 green tonnes of wood chips arrive annually to be burned for electricity generation. The second is the Brooklyn Energy plant in Liverpool, which is owned by NSP’s parent company Emera, and which uses roughly 325,000 green tonnes a year and sells the power to NSP. The third is at the Northern Pulp Mill, a dinosaur of a bleached Kraft pulp mill located in Pictou, which has a biomass furnace which it uses to provide its own electricity; estimates suggest the Northern Pulp furnace is about as consumptive as the Brooklyn plant, using roughly 325,000 green tonnes annually.
But energy generation within the province isn’t the only demand for biomass. Great Northern Timber, for instance, one of the members of the Westfor consortium, with sizable allocations on Crown land, sends shiploads of chips and pellets from the port in Sheet Harbour to Europe and elsewhere. The Ecology Action Centre estimates about 400,000 tonnes of raw wood chips are exported annually; together with the the three large biomass burning facilities and a number of smaller furnaces (for example, the the Hefler sawmill in Lower Sackville also has a biomass furnace), that’s a grand total of somewhere in the vicinity of two million tonnes (or 830,000 cubic metres) of biomass in Nova Scotia either burned locally or exported for burning in Europe.
It should be noted that these figures aren’t anywhere close to what the Department says is being cut for biomass — the most recent official provincial numbers are significantly lower — but as I’m finding out, making sense of the provincial Registry of Buyers, the place where these numbers are reported, is proving to be more complicated than it should be. So stay tuned, there will more on this at a future time.
The film shows how the industry often claims that the biomass is sourced from waste wood and wood that is otherwise not commercially valuable, but the evidence on the ground has proven otherwise.
The situation is similar here in Nova Scotia. For instance, earlier this year, it was discovered by veteran logger Danny George that old growth forests in the Lawlor Lake area near Guysborough were 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.
While the film draws pointed attention to the deception and misrepresentation on the part of the biomass companies — it says the policies of many of the countries claiming that biomass is a carbon-neutral way of producing electric power should shoulder much of the blame.
The film explains how a decade ago the European Union promised that by 2020, 20 per cent of its electricity would be generated from the use of carbon-neutral or non-carbon-emitting sources — in an effort to stave off the worst effects of climate change — and they decided that biomass qualified.
Mary Booth, who was featured in the film, says that this was when biomass power plants and pellet plants making fuel mostly for export to Europe started “popping up” all over the US. Booth is the Director and Ecosystem Ecologist for Partnership for Policy Integrity. She says these policies that “incentivized biomass as a ‘carbon free,’ source of energy” were at the root of the industry’s expansion. The EU reasoned at the time that biomass could be burned in the coal-fired power plants without having to change any of the infrastructure. It was a quick and easy way to be global leaders and deliver on the goals for 2020.
But the issues around doing the proper accounting to see if biomass was actually carbon-neutral was “put on the back-burner,” says Bas Eickhout, of the Green Party in the Netherlands. It was a “pure political decision,” he says.
Here in Nova Scotia, similar bogus claims have been made. In early 2016 Nova Scotia Power (NSP) announced that it “set a renewable energy record,” and was moving “toward a lower carbon future.” As I reported at the time here, in 2015 nearly 27 per cent of the electricity generated in the province came from renewable sources – up from only nine per cent eight years earlier – and exceeded the legislated requirement of 25 per cent. Most of the renewably generated electricity came from wind, hydro, and tidal, and about three per cent of the total electrical generation came from burning biomass. While that might not have sounded like much at the time, NSP claimed to have rapidly transitioned to renewables “faster than any other utility in Canada,” and biomass helped it get there.
I noted at the time (and it bears worth repeating now): “The problem is, calling biomass ‘renewable’ in Nova Scotia is about as inconsistent as giving up liberty for freedom. It’s basically a lie and in the context of how forestry is done in this province it’s about as Orwellian as you can get.”
For one, burning biomass to create electricity is an astonishingly inefficient use of wood. When we burn it to produce heat it’s 75-80 per cent efficient, but when burned to produce electricity it’s only 20-25 per cent efficient, which as the film points out, means 75 per cent of the energy is being discarded.
In terms of carbon neutrality, the accounting is now readily available, and the verdict is in: we’ve been duped.
In October of this year, more than 120 organizations from more than 30 countries endorsed a statement released by The Environmental Paper Network (EPN) titled The Biomass Delusion, which argues that burning wood for large-scale energy production is a “dangerous delusion” based on flawed accounting and that support for biomass undermines real renewable energy solutions. The Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre (EAC) was one of the groups that endorsed the statement. The EAC is also the organization that bought the rights to the film Burned and Ray Plourde, the organization’s wilderness coordinator, is currently touring with the film, which is screening in communities across the province.
According to Mary Booth, the calculation is a simple one: “The only thing that matters here is how much carbon does the atmosphere see and it’s a fact that there’s more carbon coming out of the stack when you burn wood than when you burn coal.”
The film presents the statistic that burning biomass to produce electricity emits 40-60 per cent more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour than burning coal.
Booth argues it’s these emissions — what she calls their “climate warming potential” that is the issue. “What’s different with bio-energy is that there’s an assumption that sometime in the future those emissions will be offset by news trees being planted, which are equivalent in mass to the trees that were cut.” But she adds, “No one’s making sure that happens.”
Booth also adds that it was the discovery of the accounting error — that the industry wasn’t even counting the greenhouse gas emissions coming out of the biomass stack but was only counting the emissions from harvesting and transport — that got the whole conversation about carbon neutrality started.
Where did the accounting error come from? Here’s a partial transcript from the film that features Mary Booth and Timothy Searchinger. He’s from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and was the lead author of the 2009 study that appeared in Science that revealed the error.
Searchinger: In a long story we ended up developing an accounting rule for global national reporting that said for bioenergy purposes we’re going to count the carbon when you cut down the tree so we don’t have to count it again when it goes up the smoke stack. And that rule works if and only if you actually count the carbon when you cut down the tree.
Booth: But the US isn’t reporting those numbers, at least not in any official way. And the UK is not reporting trees that are being cut down in the United States so when it comes to those trees being burned in UK power plants, those emissions are treated as zero because if you were counting it both when the tree is cut and at the power plant then you’d be double counting it.
Searchinger: So a rule that was designed to prevent you from counting carbon twice became a rule that says you don’t count it at all. Once that mistake had been made all kinds of people started thinking bio-energy could help solve our climate crisis. The problem is this mistake happened to also co-exist in a way to allow people to make a lot of money.
In short: it was this flawed accounting that launched the biomass boom in the first place.
But as I reported here, and more recently here, there is another crucial reason why the accounting is fatally flawed: trees are not the only place carbon is stored in a forest. For instance, in any given area, the top one metre of soil contains twice as much carbon stored than in all the trees combined. In fact, recent research indicates that clearcutting is “unlocking” the carbon stored in soils by increasing the temperature of the soil, which speeds up microbial reactions that in turn eat up as well as release the carbon stored in the soils.
In other words, how a forest is harvested has a huge impact on the surface temperature, and therefore on the soil, and how much carbon stays locked within it. Clearcuts don’t provide the conditions necessary to protect the soils, which are a massive carbon sink.
And if you look at the kind of harvesting that has taken place for decades in this province, it’s clear that maintaining carbon sinks has never been on the government’s radar.
The most recent data from the National Forestry Database shows that clearcutting is still the predominant method of cutting, though there was a very slight improvement over the previous year. In 2016, 80 per cent of the crown forests harvested were clearcut. When we include private land the figure increases to 86 per cent. The data also show that cutting on crown land continues to increase — between 2014 and 2016 it increased by 24 per cent and in 2016, more crown land was cut than in any other year since 1990.
The Environmental Paper Network just released a new study revealing that use of forest biomass as a source of “green energy” is set to increase by 250 per cent in the next decade. Globally, it has already doubled in the previous 10 years.
The report notes that despite the fact that “flawed carbon accounting methods set the emissions from wood burning to zero in the energy sector,” it now “dominates renewable energy production” in the OECD countries “dwarfing wind and solar and soaking up subsidies that should be applied to these genuinely low emissions technologies.”
The study shows that Canada, which supplied 2.2 million tonnes of wood pellets to the global market in 2017, is projected to supply roughly twice as much by 2027.
The film also explores how the biomass industry (and the resulting pollution and degraded landscapes) impacts the communities nearby and argues that most of the financial benefits that accrue from biomass harvesting do not get shared locally, and that the devastation left in the industry’s wake is one of the reasons many of the communities remain poor and are unable to revitalize economically.
When biomass plants burn post-industrial waste in addition to wood, the local communities shoulder huge health risks, and their concerns over health, odours, and fugitive dust are often ignored. For instance, the film takes us to the community of L’Anse, Michigan, where the L’Anse Warden Power Plant on the shore of Lake Superior boasts that it produces “renewable energy” by using “renewable fuels” such as wood chips, wood by-products, and railroad ties. The film reveals that the plant also burns chipped rubber tires and that the railway ties, which are from Canada, are treated with the banned pesticide pentachlorophenol, which is known to have carcinogenic, renal, and neurological effects.
While the film provided an excellent overview of the biomass problem, it was a little short on solutions. One of the audience members at the screening in Tantallon raised an important observation: the film didn’t address the demand for electricity. How can we sustainably meet the growing demand for electricity with only renewable sources? Is that even possible? Addressing consumption/ demand must also be part of any solution involving weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and onto renewables. Maybe the filmmakers are already planning a sequel.
Overall, I would say there are three key points being made by the film. One is that connections have to be drawn between the failed EU policies that decided that biomass was a form of “green” energy, and the resulting boom in an industry that has led to the liquidation of forests in the Southeastern US, as well as elsewhere. As part of this there also has to be a recognition that biomass is not coming from waste wood but from round wood — that is, actual trees are being harvested to be chipped and burned.
The second important point the film makes is that biomass has essentially replaced genuine renewables like wind and solar and is being funded at the expense of genuine solutions.
And the third point is perhaps the most crucial one: that in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change we have to make sure our forests are storing a lot of carbon and our policies should reflect this objective. Richard Houghton, a senior scientist and ecologist with the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts had this to say:
I’m making the case that you can use forests to keep the CO2 concentration from going up as you phase out fossil fuels. We can stop deforestation which is now accounting for some emissions, we can let young forests grow back, just leave them alone, let them store carbon as they age, and then we can even establish forests on areas that used to be forests that are not now. Those three things together are big enough to offset the carbon that would be emitted from fossil fuels as we phase them out, as we went to a renewable future. [Forests] give you a bridge to get from today — 10 billion tonnes of carbon emitted a year — to zero from fossil fuels, in a few decades. It has to happen.
The question the film ultimately poses for all of us is whether we, as a species, are capable of stepping up to the plate and collectively acting in ways that will solve what is now the biggest threat to human survival? With the recent warning from the UN World Meteorological Organization that the world is on track to far overshoot the global target of limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees C and instead see temperature increases of 3 to 5 degrees C by the end of the century, the situation couldn’t be more dire.
If we continue doing what we’re doing now, deluding ourselves into believing that economic gain is more important than maintaining our life support systems, then we are veering not only towards certain chaos, but towards certain madness.
The dates of future screenings of Burned will be posted here.
If local groups want to host a screening in their community, they can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to make arrangments.
Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning freelance journalist and the author of two non-fiction books: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2013) and About Canada: The Environment (2016).