No one would have called it “greenwashing” at the time, but from the very beginning the pulp and paper industry in Nova Scotia was engaged in it.
In 1929, when industrialist Izaak Walton Killam founded the province’s first pulp and paper mill in Brooklyn on the banks of the Mersey River estuary, the forests of the province were already in decline. As early as 1912, B.E. Fernow, the Dean of Forestry at the University of Toronto reported they were in “poor condition… being annually further deteriorated by abuse and injudicious use.” 1
Fernow warned the forests were “liable to exhaustion,” and that it was the “duty of those who have the continued prosperity of the Province at heart” to “arrest further deterioration and to begin restoration.”
From the start, the pulp and paper industry promised to give new value to the province’s low-grade forests. And by the time two more pulp mills came online in the 1960s — Stora Enso (now Port Hawkesbury Paper) at Point Tupper, Cape Breton Island and Scott Maritime (now Northern Pulp) at Abercrombie Point in Pictou County — there was already plenty of low-grade forest to go around.
Published in 1958 —when Robert Stanfield’s Conservatives were holding the reigns— the province’s first official forest inventory showed the downward spiral reported by Fernow had continued unabated. The degradation Fernow had warned about decades earlier must have been painfully obvious to the Department of Lands and Forests at the time — indeed, Fernow’s dire observations even appeared in the department’s 1958 publication, where it expressed its own alarm about the loss of larger trees and the need for industry to “accept smaller and smaller stock.”
But the pulp industry had at least two seemingly irresistible things going for it: it would create jobs and it could profit quite handsomely from a forest in decline.
But instead of giving new value to low grade forests, the industry has consistently taken the forest and gotten some of the lowest values for it. What’s more, by the use of clearcutting — a practice that for most of the 20th century accounted for 100 per cent of all harvesting in the province and today sits at roughly 90 per cent — the industry helped create even more low grade forests, the very ones it needs to meet its demand for cheap fibre.
While pulp’s control over the province has been evident in the politics (regardless of party stripe), it also left its mark on the forests themselves. The historical trend over a 45-year period shows that today the province’s forests are getting much younger, old forests are nearly disappeared, and species composition is changing — turning what used to be Acadian forest into the boreal. 2 In addition, 60 species are at risk in the province — 28 of which are in imminent danger of extinction; many of these are forest-dependent.
Despite all this, the McNeil government, and governments before it, have not only supported but have propped up the pulp industry with grants, subsidies, and rescue packages, undermining any potential to restore forest ecosystems or encourage real value-added industries that require high quality trees.
Life Left in the Mill
In 2012, the oldest of the three mills, Resolute Forest Products (formerly Bowater) was purchased by the province. The pulp and paper giant reported it had hit a wall of “unprecedented production costs” that it tried to counter through discounted power rates and union concessions (both of which it got). Even the government’s $50 million rescue package wasn’t enough to keep it afloat. 3
The province formed a crown corporation called Nova Scotia Lands, which became the operator of the former Bowater Mill site, which was renamed Port Mersey Commercial Park. 4 It would give control of the western crown lands — now totaling more than 560,000 hectares with the addition of 225,000 hectares of former Bowater lands — to a consortium of sawmills and other wood companies that include Harry Freeman and Sons, Louisiana Pacific, and JD Irving. 5
At the time, NDP premier Darrell Dexter promised there was “plenty of life left in the mill, plenty of opportunity to develop new products not yet imagined.” Dexter even went so far to say: “This centre will breathe new life and innovation into Nova Scotia’s changing forestry industry, and create opportunities for the good jobs Nova Scotia families rely on.”
But what Dexter didn’t say was that there would really be nothing new or transformative about Port Mersey.
When faced with an opportunity to finally come out from under some of the burden of pulp and heed the warnings issued by its own forest department over decades, the government would simply try to replace the demand for pulp with something else. Something similar.
While much of the new demand would be for biomass energy, public funds would also be invested in an alternative form of diesel made from trees — biofuel.
In 2012, when the Dexter government announced the defunct paper mill would become a business hub and research centre, it also announced it would match the $500,000 private sector investment in CelluFuel, a company that claims it’s the first in the world to be able to turn forest biomass into diesel. CelluFuel’s president, Chris Hooper formerly held senior roles with forest industry giants JD Irving, NewPage Corp., and Stora Enso.
In 2013, the Dexter government doled out an additional $1.5 million loan through Innovacorp — a provincial agency that provides early stage venture capital — to help fund the demonstration-scale project. In 2014 CelluFuel, received another $500,000 from ACOAs “business development program,” and in 2016 another $2 million from the federal Sustainable Development Technology Canada fund. 6
But was biofuel even a viable sector for the province?
Last year two companies were hired to the tune of $1.7 million to find out: BioApplied Innovation Pathways, a Nova Scotia-based company co-owned by Rod Badcock, who also held an operational role “specializing in forest management” with Bowater Mersey Paper Co., and Quebec-based FPInnovations, one of the world’s largest private, non-profit forest research centres that specializes in making money from “marginal forests.” 7 The lion’s share of the funding, $1 million, came from Emera, with $350,000 from Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government, $250,000 from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, and $67,000 from Innovacorp.
Earlier this year, on the same day that BioApplied and FPInnovations released their findings, the DNR issued a news release in which it used the words “innovative” or “innovation” 20 times. It announced that a biofuel sector was indeed viable in the province:
[S]ufficient renewable fibre is generated in Nova Scotia to supply a commercial scale plant producing liquid biofuel. The fibre could come from byproducts produced by forestry operations, such as wood chips and tree bark, as well as from farm crops and municipal solid waste sources… The Innovation Hub, launched a year ago, is working to attract investors, identify markets, and help government develop supportive regulation.
“Help government develop supportive regulation” for what, exactly? For all the other things the companies said a viable biorefinery would need, that’s what.
Things the DNR didn’t bother to mention.
For there to be enough “feedstock” or fibre volume to support a commercial-scale biorefinery in the province, the biorefinery would definitely need the byproducts produced by the forest industry, as the DNR points out, but they’d also need feedstocks that were “forest-origin” — that is, wood coming right from the forest.
It would need “harvest residues” — the coarse woody debris that is legally required to be left in clearcuts, it would need sawmills to produce at full capacity, and it would also need the province to allow full-tree harvesting, whereby the entire tree including the stems and branches but excluding the stump and roots is removed.
While it remains unclear what the province’s position is here, it appears not to sanction it. In an email, DNR’s media relations advisor Bruce Nunn explained that unless otherwise agreed to by both parties in writing, it is currently prohibited on crown land to remove coarse or fine woody debris, tree tops, or stumps from harvest sites. 8
Is biofuel viable? Only if the government changes some of the (already lax) rules in the industry’s favour.
In the province’s January news release, Navdeep Bains, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Minister responsible for ACOA in the Trudeau government, was quoted saying that the development of biofuel was a way of “taking action on climate change and reducing carbon pollution.”
The climate benefit of using biofuel was also a front-and-centre claim made by CelluFuel president Chris Hooper, who referred to the product in media reports as “carbon neutral.”
The company’s bare bones Web site boasts that biofuel is a “source of energy with a reduced environmental footprint.”
Hooper also said that at first the fuel would likely be blended with petroleum-based diesel, and that it would source its raw material from Harry Freeman and Son, Ltd. in Greenfield.
I made several attempts to reach Hooper and find out more about how far off the company is from commercialization, and to discuss its claims of carbon neutrality, but my email and phone calls went unanswered.
Despite the fact that the company has benefited directly from at least $4.5 million in federal and provincial taxpayer dollars — in addition to a $1.7 million part-publicly funded viability study — CelluFuel doesn’t appear to feel the need to be publicly accountable.
More “Bullshit on the Climate File”
Dale Prest is the Ecosystem Services Specialist with Community Forests International, an organization based in New Brunswick that is developing a network of private woodlots throughout the Maritimes — with seven woodlots in Nova Scotia — that are being managed to maximize their carbon storage potential.
Prest says claims of carbon neutrality in the forest industry as they relate to any energy product all revolve around a really simplistic idea of how carbon cycling works in our forests. He says carbon neutrality is often premised on the notion that if you cut a tree, the carbon lost is balanced out by what is gained by growing one to replace the one cut.
“In reality, that doesn’t hold any amount of water,” he says:
We’re seeing more and more in Europe and in the UK, the use of biomass, for instance, is coming under heavier and heavier scrutiny as not being carbon neutral and that’s because there’s a lot more places carbon is stored in the forest than just in the tree and there’s a lot more emissions related to getting that energy product to the point of use than just the carbon contained in the wood itself.
Prest says that while trees are essentially “solar-powered carbon vacuums,” claims to carbon neutrality really break down when you consider the following astonishing fact: In any given area, the top one metre of soil contains twice as much carbon stored than in all the trees combined.
Scientists used to believe that carbon in the soil stayed there no matter what we did to the soil, Prest says, but in the last 15 years research has revealed that clearcutting actually mobilizes the carbon.
“When you cut all the trees down you increase the temperature of the soil because sunlight is hitting it directly, and that increased temperature speeds up microbial reactions and they eat up all the carbon that’s in the soil and kick it off into the atmosphere,” says Prest.
The carbon in forest soils has been there for thousands of years but Prest says harvesting practices in the province are “unlocking it.”
According to Prest, to be able to claim a forest product is carbon neutral or better yet, provides a carbon benefit — increasing the amount of carbon stored — one has to take a close look at the management system from which that forest product came. “It would have to be a carefully maintained forest that retains a tree canopy, keeping the temperature cool at the soil surface, and doesn’t disturb the mineral soil,” he explains:
This is well documented, established science: we know that if you manage a forest through selection means — by going in and selecting individual trees or small groups of trees, grow your trees to be older and maintain that forest cover over the forest floor — your forest will store two or times times as much carbon as is stored in a clearcut-rotation style forest. We can start to claim that these well-managed forests provide a legitimate climate benefit.
Prest says that while the argument often made by the biomass and now biofuel industry is that they are providing a market for by-products and residuals like sawdust and bark from sawmills as well as low-grade wood from stand-improvement treatments, this isn’t actually what’s going on:
We’ve seen every pulp mill and every export facility and every chipping plant make that claim over the years. And in every single case all that has happened is it’s provided an easy dumping ground for us to liquidate our forests at a younger and younger age regardless of the species of trees. They say there were no hardwood saw logs going into the biomass plant in Point Tupper, but if you cut down a 50-year old sugar maple tree that isn’t quite big enough yet to be a sawlog, then you didn’t cut down any sawlogs for the biomass plant. But if had you left it for another 15 or 20 or even 50 years it could have been a veneer log.
Prest says that without exception, all the energy products that are coming out in the Maritimes right now are relying on low–cost feedstock and the only way you can get that is to manage your forest in the cheapest way possible and that’s through clearcutting.
“We need to get serious about this,” he says. “We don’t have any time left for bullshit on the climate file.”
Prest’s research has also revealed that soils in clearcut stands are lower in organic matter and nutrients and that it takes 70-80 years to rebuild to the levels prior to clearing. Nitrogen in soils can take 120 years to recover. This means that any clearcut rotation of less than 120 years is “likely to be unsustainable.” 9
The Jobs Question
In an economic impact study released earlier this year, Forest Nova Scotia (formerly the Nova Scotia Forest Products Association) announced that in 2015 the forest sector had created 11,500 jobs (6,100 direct and 5,400 indirect) in the province. According to Forest NS Executive Director Jeff Bishop, who referred my questions to Gardiner Pinfold, the firm hired by Forest NS to crunch the numbers, the jobs numbers were derived through modelling:
The jobs estimate comes from Statistics Canada’s economic impact model. It is based on a custom request to Statistics Canada where we submit industry total sales figures for 2015 and Statistics Canada returns direct, indirect, and induced job statistics. The jobs statistics are reasonable considering the jobs reported historically for this sector and the sales levels in 2015.
In a news release the day after the study was published, the Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines announced, “This is a strong recovery for the forest sector and the government wants to see it continue to grow good jobs in the province.”
But what the DNR release doesn’t say is that the sector has been shedding jobs for years. A 1997 study by St. Francis Xavier University professor Ian Spencer for the Wood Products Association of NS estimated that as many as 13,000 direct jobs for 1996. The Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC) reported similar figures for 1998, nearly double what was recently reported by Forest NS.
The decline in forest-related jobs is likely due to a number of factors, including mechanization and automation in harvesting and processing, a globalized market, neoliberalism and the push to maximize profits at the expense of workers, and one that the government and industry are unwilling to broach publicly: the forests have been overharvested.
Instead of reporting on the number of jobs the industry creates, the government and industry should be reporting on how much wood fibre is needed to employ one person, or what’s called the jobs-per-unit biomass. When jobs numbers are calculated this way we discover that companies that employ a combination of selection harvesting and value-added have the highest jobs per unit biomass ratio.
For instance, Finewood Flooring and Lumber Ltd., a value-added business on Cape Breton Island — closed in 2014 as a result of Nova Scotia Power opening the biomass plant in Port Hawkesbury — employed 10 people for every 1,000 cubic metres of wood it used. 10
In contrast, the pulp and paper industry only employs 1.4 people per 1,000 cubic metres of wood, and one of the province’s largest, ultra-modern sawmills employs less than 1 person per 1,000 cubic metres. 11
In 2015, the year Forest NS said the industry created 6,100 direct jobs, the Registry of Buyers reported that 3.7 million cubic metres of wood was harvested in the province. This means that for every 1,000 cubic metres of wood cut that year, less than one person was employed, which is down from 2006 when the number of jobs per 1,000 m3 of wood was reported at 1.3.
Cutting Less and Employing More
We know that whenever we do something extra to a log — involving more human effort, tools, and machines—we add value to it.
Robert Taylor recently appeared before the Resources Committee of the provincial legislature to speak about the subject of value-added in the forest sector, and his views on forest sustainability in general. Taylor is head of Taylor Lumber, a family-run business in Middle Musquodoboit that started out in 1936 with three employees and in five generations has grown to employ between 90 and 110 people directly and indirectly through logging operations, a sawmill operation, a planing mill, a chipping plant, a pallet manufacturing plant, and a retail supply store.
Taylor told the Committee that key to his company’s success is its ability to do more with less.
“Rather than cutting more trees, we need to cut fewer trees but do more with them,” said Taylor. He said this approach will also employ more people. “Nova Scotia is a small province with a small wood supply. Our focus should be on producing lumber for our local market, building local industry, and keeping jobs here, not for us producing lumber for export.”
When it came to the province’s preferential treatment of the pulp industry, Taylor didn’t mince words:
Over the past 20 years, pulp mills and lumber mills in this province have been either propped up or bailed out in one form or another by the government to keep from closing, to try to save some jobs…[creating] an un-level playing field in the industry…For example, businesses that did not receive the funding are forced to use their R&D money to compete with government-supported companies on the open market for raw materials such as stumpage. This in turn prevents them from diversifying and growing their business. It’s not hard to see who has the advantage here.
The challenges facing the value-added forest industry in Nova Scotia haven’t gone unnoticed.
Back in 2003, a study about the value-added wood products industry was prepared for the Nova Scotia Community College and funded by Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC) and ACOA. It found that despite the higher revenues generated and job creation potential of the value-added sector, viability has been “threatened” by a number of factors including provincial policies around the use of crown land, the provincial focus on primary manufacturing (pulp), and unsustainable forest harvesting.
The report stated that “more roundwood currently being harvested needs to make its way into the supply chain of the value-added wood products industry in Nova Scotia…Instead much of the roundwood is leaving the province to be processed elsewhere or is being converted to very low value-added products.”
Nova Scotia Government, Spineless
Raymond Plourde is the Wilderness Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. He says the McNeil government’s recent election promise to conduct an independent review of forest practices is redundant.
Plourde says we’ve already had a “massive, exhaustive independent public review of forestry practices” with the Natural Resources Strategy process as well as the Panuke Lake Harvest Review. He says both of these resulted in a public call to reduce clearcutting.
But in the fall of last year, when the DNR released its progress report, on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Natural Resource Strategy, any hope that a new vision had been put into practice was dashed. Instead of reporting on its progress toward meeting the citizen-led targets, including a significant reduction in clearcutting and prohibiting whole tree biomass harvesting, the McNeil government has instead abandoned them.
Plourde says that five years since the public consultation was initiated clearcutting is still at nearly 90 per cent and the public remains “frozen out” of decision-making for Crown land management.
“We don’t need another review of forestry practices in Nova Scotia. We just need a government with the backbone to implement the policies and regulations already developed and promised to the public through a highly-credible independent public policy review process.”
Plourde also doesn’t mince any words when it comes to how he feels about CelluFuel and products like biomass and biofuel. He says we need another “high volume, low value commodity product made from trees…like we need another hole in the head.”
He points to centuries of high-grading for lumber and “decades of rampant clearcutting to feed the insatiable pulp and paper industry” and the more recent “high-volume consumptive pressure of big biomass for domestic and foreign electricity generation,” as all leading to the decimation of habitat and the “ever-growing list of endangered forest-dependent wildlife species.”
What the innovation peddlers won’t tell you is that technologies, like CelluFuel, are not ethically neutral forms of progress. They are actually regressive and, given the ecological and climate challenges we currently face, based on delusional thinking. They also undermine what the public wants and what the forests need.
We know the way forward. What we’re lacking is political will. How can we innovate some of that?
- The report, “Forest Conditions of Nova Scotia,” was written by B.E. Fernow, the Dean of the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto who conducted a “reconnaissance forest survey of the Province” funded by the Government of Nova Scotia. At the time Fernow described how more than 25 per cent of the forest on the mainland, and more than 30 per cent on Cape Breton Island, was in what he called a “virgin” or “moderately culled” state: moderately culled meant “not more than one-third to one-half was removed” and “virgin” was “when no timber, or only the pine and heaviest spruce had been removed in earlier times.” Much of it — 55 per cent on the mainland 32 per cent on the Island — was “severely culled” where “more than half of the timber was removed.” ↩
- I’ve written extensively about being unable to access recent forest inventory data in the five-part series Biomass, Freedom of Information and the DNR Company Men. ↩
- The Dexter government purchased all shares in the Bowater Mersey paper company for $1 from owners Resolute Forest Products and The Washington Post Company. The assets transferred to the Nova Scotian government included 225,000 hectares (valued at $115-$120 million, 10,000 hectares of which were purchased by Resolute using nearly $24 million of the government “rescue package”), the pulp and paper mill in Brooklyn (valued at $5 million), a deep water marine terminal in Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Power Corporation biomass electrical generating plant. Liabilities included a $20 million debt to Resolute Forest Products, Inc; a $120 million pension liability for workers in the woodland/ pulp mill operations, and all environmental liabilities for the pulp mill site. ↩
- This is how the DNR describes the site’s new organization/ structure: “Innovacorp works with Nova Scotia lands in developing a pipeline of potential business that could set up shop on the site…Cellufuel is a tenant of Nova Scotia Lands. Go to http://www.portmersey.ca to see a list of other tenants. Cellufuel is a client of Innovacorp which is part of the iHub or Innovation Hub, a group of organizations and companies working with government to help stimulate development of more innovation in various fields, including bioresources, agriculture, forestry and others. iHub members work cooperatively and provide administrative resources but iHub itself as an entity does not have a physical office location of its own.” ↩
- Near the end of its mandate the NDP government would also negotiate a secret volume allocation to Northern Pulp effectively more than doubling the amount of wood allocated to the Pictou County pulp giant from crown lands. ↩
- In addition to the public money, private equity was invested by other key players in the industry. By 2014 CelluFuel had raised — through private and public funds — the $5 million in capital it required to start the demonstration project. ↩
- Badcock wouldn’t be the only company man to find favour with the McNeil Liberals. In 2014 they hired Jonathan Porter, the former woodlands manager with Resolute/Bowater, as the Executive Director of the Department of Natural Resources renewable resources branch and appointed Allan Eddy, a former senior forester with Nova Scotia Power as Associate Deputy Minister. They joined Jonathan Kierstead, also formerly of Bowater who had been hired a couple years earlier and was Director of Forestry. ↩
- Nunn says that in 2016 there was no whole tree or full tree harvesting on Crown land as part of forestry operations. ↩
- Dale Prest’s research on organic matter in soils is taken from “Clear Cutting Causing Long-term Declines in Forest Productivity? Implications of the Forestry Strategy.” NB Naturalist. (2014) http://www.naturenb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NB-Naturalist-Vol.41-No.1-Colour-August-29.pdf. In his article, Prest lists a number of “signs” of decreasing forest soil productivity: the forest is not growing as quickly as we think it should; plantations that were expected to be ready for harvest need additional time to produce desired volume; Balsam fir, which requires higher quality soils, might not be growing as vigorously; there’s an increase in species that thrive on low quality soils such as pin cherry, poplars and white birch. ↩
- In 2014, within two years of Nova Scotia Power opening the biomass plant in Port Hawkesbury, two hardwood manufacturers — Finewood Flooring and Rivers Bend Wood Products — closed down. The media reported that both businesses were having difficulty getting a reliable supply of quality hardwood and attributed that to a decline in harvesting capacity, with fewer contractors working in the woods, fewer woodlot owners participating in the industry, and that hardwood sawlogs were not being sorted but instead being chipped for the biomass plant. ↩
- The jobs per unit biomass figures for pulp and paper and sawmills are from the 2008 GPI report: http://www.gpiatlantic.org/pdf/forest/forestupdate.pdf ↩