Wood pellet industry threatens BC forests, critics say
Drax, the company that owns England's largest power station, controls the majority of BC's wood pellet market and intends to expand its Canadian operations.
Environmental groups are concerned that companies are using whole trees rather than wood waste to produce pellets that are sold as biofuel. The Smithers plant in this image is 70% owned by Drax.
An investigation by The Fifth Estate of CBC highlights how the Drax company transformed a small industry into an international operation dependent on the exploitation of logging areas including virgin forests and old forests of British Columbia.
< p class="e-p">The wood pellet industry and the government of British Columbia say that pellets are a renewable energy source and that this industry will allow different countries to meet their gas emission targets greenhouse while creating jobs.
For their part, activists, scientists and environmentalists argue that far from being green, wood pellet production generates few jobs and worsens the climate crisis. They add that the whole thing is taking place with the support of the NDP government of John Horgan, a longtime target of critics who say it is too close to the forestry industry.
Greenwashing of the wood pellet industry must stop, says Bob Simpson, mayor of Quesnel, an inland city whose financial health depends on the forest industry.
Wood pellet heating
The wood pellet industry argues that this resource is renewable because trees are growing back while fossil fuels are gone forever. Scientists note, however, that it takes decades and even centuries for a forest to regenerate and that burning wood pellets produces more greenhouse gas emissions than coal.
You have to see this industry for what it is: a money-printing machine for a few individuals on UK subsidies and at the expense of British Columbia, says Bob Simpson.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan believes the wood pellet industry offers a win-win solution for the economy and the environment. Its Minister of Forests, Katrine Conroy, has in fact promoted its expansion in Asia.
Concerns about the industry and its relationship with those responsible for the watch were heightened earlier this year when Diane Nicholls, the long-serving provincial chief forester, became Drax Group's North American vice president of sustainability.
When a bureaucrat makes the leap to work [within the industry] that his decisions as a public servant supported, the least we can say [I think] is that it's a bit messy, says Bob Simpsons. [I think] an investigation is warranted.
John Horgan declined interview offered by The Fifth Estate. In a statement, the Minister of Forests said of Diane Nicholls that she played a key role in the adoption of a new management of forests and that the wood pellet industry makes it possible to reduce the waste that comes from the logging.
In 2012, the value of wood pellet exports from the province was $174 million, according to Statistics Canada, and the majority was exported to the England. By 2021, the value of exports had more than doubled to $378 million; Japan is now approaching the United Kingdom as the first export market.
Drax sources its wood pellets all over the world, from the United States, Europe and South America. By 2030, the company plans to nearly double its production to 8 million tonnes, and many observers in British Columbia wonder where the new production will come from and what it will mean for the forests of the province.
Michelle Connoly, a director of the Prince George-based group Conservation North, has discovered data that shows that pellet companies aren't just buying up foresters' leftovers. They also obtain cutting permits.
By acquiring Pinnacle's assets in 2021, Drax became 100% owner of 4 wood pellet plants and partial owner of 3 other pellet plants in British Columbia, including this one in Burns Lake. /p>
Conservation North teamed up with Ben Parfitt, an analyst with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives based in Victoria. He combed through provincial public data and found that Pinnacle Resources, acquired by Drax in 2021, has obtained numerous logging permits.
In its annual report published in March 2022, Drax writes that its operations extend to areas that include old-growth forests in the province and that it is complying with the interim restrictions adopted by Victoria on logging in these areas.
Drax denies producing electricity in England using British Columbian wood. The company's director of sustainability, Joe Aquino, told The Fifth Estate, that Drax only uses poor quality trees that would otherwise be useless. Better quality trees are used by sawmills and other manufacturers.
Drax is 100% owner of the Meadowbank wood pellet plant near Prince George.
During a tour of his Meadowbank plant south of Prince George, Joe Aquino pointed out that 80% of the raw materials used to produce wood pellets are sawmill residues and the remaining 20% comes from forests in the form of round timber.
An important part of Drax's argument, when it claims to be a green industry, is that it uses logging slash , i.e. the twigs and small pieces of wood that remain in the cuts after logging.
These slash can be used as fuel in the event of a forest fire and the practice of burning them in a controlled manner is criticized, as it produces greenhouse gases.
These remnants are now an added value for the foresters who promise that everything will be burned across the Atlantic.
Logging slash, twigs and small pieces of wood debris that remain after felling can be sold by foresters to wood pellet production plants.
In England, carbon emanating from the smokestacks of Drax's power plants are making headlines.
This increases greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere in the short to medium term and they are getting grants to do this, rages Duncan Brack, a policy adviser for London think tank Chatham House.
In December 2021, more than 50 UK Members of Parliament signed a letter calling for an end to subsidies to the wood pellet industry, saying burning trees was a scandal. They noted in their letter that that year Drax had already received $7 billion in grants from the UK.
A demand echoed by more than 500 scientists in another letter where they claim that using wood pellets to generate electricity is not a solution to the climate crisis. They point out that trees are more valuable standing than felled, both for climate and biodiversity.
Drax is no longer listed on the index S&P clean energy.
In a report, Drax outlines its strategy to counter opposition to electricity generation using wood pellets by maintaining strong ties with government officials, including in Canada.
For his part, Adam Olsen, Green Party MP for Victoria and his forestry critic believes that the management of the forestry industry in the province is in crisis.
While logging has been in decline in the province for 20 years, causing the disappearance of half of the nearly 100,000 jobs in the sector, the production of wood pellets is gaining momentum.
The forestry industry is an important part of Williams Lake's economy.
There are 13 mills in the province production of wood pellets, 8 of which are totally or partially owned by Drax.
Once these factories are built, the provincial government can hardly ask them to close shop, says Ben Parfitt, an analyst at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. These factories need raw materials and they will acquire them as economically as possible, he adds.
Michelle Connoly of the group Conservation North fears that this industry will gobble up what there are forests left in the province to produce a so-called green energy that is not.
In the heart of one of the most forest-dependent regions in British Columbia, Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson understands the lure of the wood pellet industry for forest towns. He points out, however, that there are better ways to use the province's forest resources, whether to produce bioplastics, engineered wood products or fiberboard, which are ways to sequester carbon.
Let's end the subsidies, let's stop the ridiculous calculations to make the greenhouse gases [produced by this industry] disappear and it becomes clear that this is not an industry to be supported, says Bob Simpson.
On Thursday, Drax issued a press release in response to the The Fifth Estate report that aired Thursday night. The company claims that Canada has some of the most regulated forests in the world, ensuring that British Columbia's forests are well managed.
Drax claims that& #x27;it does not harvest the forests and that it did not harvest the timber located in the area targeted by this CBC program in its report.
Our raw material sourcing policies comply with Canadian and UK government standards and regulations.
With information from The Fifth Estate