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The absurd practice of cutting down B.C. forests just to burn them must end

British energy behemoth Drax denied logging old-growth forests to turn into wood pellets, but investigations said otherwise. The mess points to an urgent need to address an ecological crisis and unfolding economic disaster
This article was originally published on The Tyee.

Michelle Connolly is the director of Conservation North. Ben Parfitt is a policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Two respected news organizations have aired recent investigative documentaries showing how trees in B.C.’s drastically over-cut primary forests are chopped down, only to be turned into wood pellets that are burned by the millions of tonnes to make electricity in the United Kingdom.

First, the BBC televised a report on its feature series Panorama. Then, a few days later, CBC’s The Fifth Estate weighed in.

Both investigations demonstrated that massive numbers of logs — which come from trees, which come from forests — are being trucked to mills in B.C. owned by Drax, a U.K.-based multinational power generation and wood pellet corporation.

Drax then turns those trees into pellets that leave B.C. in ocean tankers and make their way to England, where they are burned at Drax’s North Yorkshire thermal electric plant.

Both documentaries validated what we and others have been saying for some time.

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Not only are mountains of wood pellets from B.C. burned every year, but massive British government subsidies underwrite this on the spurious grounds that burning “waste” wood instead of coal amounts to a climate solution.

In reality, even more greenhouse gases are emitted burning wood than coal. What Drax wants us to believe, however, is that somehow those wood-burning emissions don’t count because newly planted trees will eventually replace those that were cut down.

Following the airing of the first of the documentaries, Katrine Conroy, minister of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development was asked in the legislature to confirm that no old-growth trees were being turned into wood pellets by Drax.

“I just want to clarify for the record,” she said. “There is no old-growth being cut down to utilize in Drax mills across the province.”

In response to other questions, Conroy clarified that Drax “might” use logs to turn directly into wood pellets, but only logs that lumber markets did not want.

The BBC discovered, however, that not only did Drax own a licence to log old-growth forest, but that the forest in question was in a “deferral” area identified by B.C.’s own Technical Advisory Panel as at risk. Conservation North recently filmed the logging taking place in this Drax licence area.

View of old-growth deforestation
Cutting down primary forests — meaning forests that haven’t been industrially logged before — is causing an ecological and economic crisis. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Even the Wood Pellet Association of Canada, of which Drax is a member, acknowledges they use logs. They just argue that so-called “biologs” can’t be used for anything else because they are of such low quality — an assertion that a wood worker interviewed by the BBC said was false.

In a recent report commissioned by the association, the authors estimate that 19 per cent of the feedstock for B.C. pellet mills is, in fact, logs.

Which means that at the very least, one million cubic metres of logs per year are being turned directly into wood pellets by Drax and others.

Since almost all previously logged forests in B.C.’s Interior are still too young to log, that means any logs entering Drax’s mills come from “primary” forests, which have never been industrially logged. Once cut down, such forests won’t reach an advanced age again, since industrial forestry is predicated on cutting down planted trees in 80 years or less.

Old-growth forests are home to culturally-modified trees and entire ecosystems. The pellet industry has placed massive strain on forests by increasing their output to four times what it used to be two decades ago. Photo: Shayd Johnson / The Narwhal

The rapid rate at which our primary forests have been logged has placed us squarely in an ecological crisis, which is mirrored in an unfolding economic disaster as thousands of jobs in the forest industry disappear.

Too much forest has been logged too quickly. Little is left. Even the B.C. government says so, noting in its most recent budget that logging rates are poised to fall dramatically.

This unfolding disaster has accelerated in part because of the pellet industry, which over the last two decades has quadrupled its output, placing further strain on forests that were already overtaxed by the sawmill and wood pulp industries.

Changing course requires that government stop the denial game, admit the mess we are in, and take action. We believe that action includes:

  • A transparent, full accounting of where all logs and residual forest products go, whether to sawmills, pulp mills or pellet mills;
  • Unambiguous policies that compel forest companies to get the maximum value from each tree logged, with priority given to solid wood products; and
  • Rapidly protecting what little old-growth (and other primary forest) remains, which is what scientists on a panel appointed by the government said must be done.

The absurd practice of cutting down forests just to burn them must end.

We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?
We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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