British Columbia has developed a growing market for wood pellets that are sold as renewable bioenergy for thermal power plants abroad, but the province’s largest producer is under fire for cutting down old-growth forests.
On Tuesday, the BC Green Party called on the provincial government to suspend the operating licenses of the Drax Group pending an investigation to determine whether the British-based company is utilizing old-growth timber in its pellet mills.
BC Green MLA Adam Olsen raised the issue during Question Period, citing BBC reports that Drax was cutting down primary, or old-growth, forests in Canada to power its power plants in Britain.
“Does she believe that in 2022, in a worsening climate crisis, burning wood pellets is clean, green energy?” Mr. Olsen asked of Katrine Convoy, the Forests Minister, in the legislature.
In response, Ms. Conroy said the province’s pellet industry gets most of its wood fibre from waste – sawdust and shavings, chips and harvest residuals – and that any trees that are harvested for pellets are not valuable enough to make solid wood products.
“Companies are not using whole trees that would be used as sawlogs. If they’re using a whole tree, it’s been burnt, it’s been damaged by beetle kill,” she said. “So yes, companies might use a whole tree for a pellet factory, but it’s a tree that wouldn’t be used in a sawmill.”
Drax officials did not respond to an interview request, but in a statement responding to the BBC report, the company said 80 per cent of its Canadian pellets are made of sawmill residues.
“The rest is waste material collected from the forests which would otherwise be burned to reduce the risk of wildfires and disease,” the statement says.
Drax is Britain’s largest source of renewable electricity, at 12 per cent. A coalition of environmental organizations last year launched a campaign to target the company’s shareholders, seeking to block the company’s acquisition of a B.C.-based pellet mill manufacturer, Pinnacle Renewable Energy. They argued Drax was risking its reputation with its claims that wood pellet fuel is clean energy.
The deal went ahead, and Drax is now the major player in the wood pellet industry in B.C.
While most of the wood fibre going into Drax mills is salvaged material, the company did purchase harvesting rights last year that included B.C. old growth, providing a soft target for environmentalists who oppose the industry.
The Pinnacle operation now owned by Drax purchased two cut blocks from the government agency, BC Timber Sales, months before the province announced a freeze on the agency’s sales of at-risk old growth.
According to the Ministry of Forests, roughly one-third of the trees in those cut blocks was damaged by mountain pine beetle, but the timber stands also included roughly 100 hectares of old growth.
Karen Price, an ecologist who served as an expert on the province’s Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel, said the wood pellet industry has transformed forestry in B.C., cutting old-growth forests that had previously been regarded as being at low risk.
“Pellets change the economic equation and open up areas that were previously outside the timber harvesting landbase, particularly remote stands with a mix of big and smaller trees,” she said. “These stands, particularly in the inland temperate rain forest, have high biodiversity value.”
The province’s wood pellet industry is growing – exports have doubled over the past decade, with almost 2.4 billion kilograms of shipments in 2021, mostly to Britain, Japan and South Korea. According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Forests, 5 per cent of that would be made up of logs that do not meet quality or size specifications of sawlogs.
This sector grew out of the mountain pine beetle infestation that devastated 18 million hectares of interior forests. The infestation peaked in 2005, and the forest sector had to pivot to find ways to use up dead and dying wood. Creating wood pellets was billed as a way to transform dead trees into a product that would reduce the carbon output of coal-fired power plants 20,000 kilometres away.
But that carbon accounting is increasingly being questioned. In April, Stand.earth released a report criticizing Canada and B.C. for subsidizing the development of the wood pellet industry as a climate solution.
“Flawed emissions accounting and devastating impacts on forests mean that this industry is one of the most polluting in the world,” the report says.