Yukon biomass climate change

Yukon’s climate plans rely on biomass. But is it actually good for the environment?

The territorial government wants to move from burning fossil fuels to wood in a bid to reduce emissions from heating. But critics wonder if the impacts to forests and the climate are being overlooked

The temperature dipped down to a crisp minus 14 C Friday in Whitehorse, an early reminder of what, for the next several months, will become a shared seasonal preoccupation for all Yukoners: staying warm.

Yukon reports it spends $60 million every year to generate heat, about $50 million of which is spent on imported fossil fuels. It’s an expensive way to keep warm and comes with a hefty greenhouse gas footprint: heating accounts for nearly a quarter of the territory’s total emissions and over half of the corporate emissions from the Yukon Government itself. 

As part of Yukon’s new climate strategy, released in September, that costly over-reliance on fossil fuels for heating will be reduced, in part, by turning to the burning of biomass, essentially wood and wood waste leftover from wildfires and logging operations. Heating with cordwood, bulk pellets or wood chips can cost 50 per cent less than using fossil fuels or electricity, according to Yukon’s 2016 biomass energy strategy.

Yet a reliance on wood for heating is raising concern for environmental advocates who say so-called ‘clean’ biofuels can threaten forests while contributing to air pollution and climate change.

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Yukon’s biomass plan could put mature forests at risk: conservationist

 The thought of turning forests into biofuel for heating sets alarm bells ringing in the mind of Donald Reid, a conservation zoologist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.

 “It’s the traditional set of concerns that go along with logging mature forests in any jurisdiction,” he said. Clearcut logging can threaten biodiversity and potentially damage moose, caribou and marten habitats, he added. 

While the Yukon climate strategy states the territory will use “local, sustainably harvested biomass,” Reid said the government hasn’t indicated where wood will be sourced to support an increase in the use of wood for heat. If new logging is going to be taking place near wildlife habitat, roadbuilding can open the gates to an increase in hunting, adding yet another stressor on wildlife, he said.

“It has to be made clearer to the Yukon public that this is going to happen. We need more transparency on that wood supply.”

Reid also said he is suspicious of the government’s claims that the use of biomass will help support the wood products industry through Yukon’s FireSmart program that removes fuel from forest floors.

Reid said positioning biomass use as a means of wildfire prevention is a “red herring” because the amount of wood gathered in those activities would be marginal.

As part of the climate strategy, the Yukon government plans to install 20 commercial and institutional biomass heating systems by 2030 and is supporting the increased development of biomass systems in First Nations communities.

“The wood from fire smarting will never be sufficient,” Reid said. “They’re not going to provide enough fuel supply for large-scale biomass.” While dead wood salvaged from old forest fires could be used, Reid said he is concerned these burns are too far from towns that will become reliant on biomass.

“Ultimately they’re going to be going into the green wood [intact] forests and clear-cutting stands in order to burn them.”

B.C. recently raised the ire of conservation groups after permitting the logging of old-growth forests for biomass products destined to be shipped overseas. Despite plans to use wood waste, B.C. biomass producers also use whole logs sourced from clearcuts located in caribou habitat, as The Narwhal reported in April.

Lisa Walker, the director of the Yukon forestry branch at Energy, Mines and Resources, said trees will continue to be harvested from intact forests, old burns and through FireSmart efforts, many of which will go hand-in-hand with a variety of land use activities, including clearing land for new development or roads.

Walker said that while wood from intact forests is already harvested in almost every region in Yukon — from Whitehorse to Dawson City — that material is used to create value-added products like furniture. But there’s always material left over and that’s what the Yukon government is going to use as a heat source for certain buildings, she said. She noted the majority of the wood that is used for heating is harvested as dead wood.

Reid’s concerns about keeping forests intact hinge on an increase in demand for biomass products. But Walker said that the Yukon government has regulations that limit how much wood can be harvested any given year.

“We can only harvest what is written into legislation,” she said, adding that there are planning processes that indicate where trees can actually be cut down. And, if there’s a dip in supply, the Yukon government will import wood for its biomass plans.

Yukon Biomass Jack Church The Narwhal

According to the Yukon biomass energy strategy, only 0.1 per cent of the territory’s forests, which cover 38 million hectares, are set aside for wood harvesting. Although, a push for increase biomass could lead to new harvest areas being designated. Photo: Jack Church

“It will never get to a level that’s unsustainable, because legally we’re not allowed to get there.”

Until regional management plans are in place, “harvest levels in each forest region are capped by regulation,” according to the 2016 biomass energy strategy.   

The extent of harvesting is marginal, with only 0.1 per cent of all forests in Yukon — covering about 38 million hectares — dedicated to wood harvesting, the report states. 

But the report also suggests “industry can lead the development of new harvest areas through timber harvest planning, with assistance from government to ensure sustainability requirements are met.” 

Roughly 30,000 cubic metres of wood are harvested in Yukon annually to heat homes and buildings, accounting for about 17 per cent of the territory’s total consumption of energy for heat, the report says.

Sustainability concerns are ‘unfounded,’ industry player says

Myles Thorp, executive director of the Yukon Wood Products Association, told The Narwhal that Yukon has untapped potential for fuel derived from wood that doesn’t require felling more trees. That’s part of the reason why he’s been pressing the Yukon government for years to bolster its biomass plans.

Wood that doesn’t meet firewood grade — the tops of trees or broken pieces — can be used as wood chips to fuel efficient boilers, he said. Instead, they’re going to waste by being burned in the bush.

“That material is what we’re trying to find a market for,” Thorp said.

The claim that more mature forests are going to be cut down is “unfounded,” he said.

That’s because there isn’t going to be much harvesting of trees beyond what’s happening right now, especially when FireSmarting efforts are involved in the mix, Thorp said.

“[Wildlife Conservation Society Canada] is equating our needs in the Yukon with an industry that doesn’t exist here, and it will never exist here,” he said. “We’re a high-cost producing area and we’ll never have a sawmill that’ll get into the commodity lumber industry.”

Whitehorse and the surrounding area is sitting on a mature, conifer forest that hasn’t been harvested in some areas for about 100 years, Thorp said, but warned that the city is also sitting on a tinder box.

“We’re ready for another major forest fire to run through this area. The FireSmart programs are starting to ramp up and we’re saying that timber that’s removed has commercial value and it should be converted into firewood, at a minimum, and some wood chips.”

Most harvesting in Yukon is for the commercial sale of firewood. That wood typically comes from old burns or diseased trees, Thorp said.

“We’re actually doing forest renewal because we’re taking the dead trees out and you have to replant, even where you logged,” he said. “In terms of sustainability, it’s not an issue.”

Wood Pellets biomass

Wood pellets like these are used as biomass and can be generated from salvaged wood but critics worry whole logs may be ground up and burned as fuel, contributing to deforestation, habitat loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo: Andrew Writer / Flickr

Biomass connected to high emissions, air pollution

As part of its climate strategy, Yukon plans to prioritize biomass heating systems in buildings that have “significant heating demand” over the next decade.

Using large, efficient biomass systems will produce fewer air emissions, the strategy states.

Yet while the biomass industry claims wood is a form of clean, renewable energy, recent criticism points to the fuel source’s overlooked impacts.

An April report from the environmental organization Stand.earth found that “at the smokestack, burning wood pellets for power generation is worse than coal in terms of climate pollution.”

And yet, the report documents, due to a loophole in the Paris climate accord “biomass plants do not have to count emissions at the stack, under the premise that emissions are accounted for and offset on the supply side — which is not the case.”

According to Shane Andre, the director of the energy branch of Energy, Mines and Resources, the Yukon government tracks emissions produced from biomass fuel sources but does not include them in the territory’s total emissions.

“We count those numbers, but we don’t count them in our emissions totals, because that would be double dipping,” Andre said. “We do calculate them sometimes, but we wouldn’t report on them.”

Andre pointed to two facilities that are already heated with wood sources — the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, which has been heated by wood pellets since 2012,  and a wastewater treatment plant in Dawson — where emissions are being tracked.

In March 2020, Yukon received $2.3 million in federal funds to connect the existing biomass system at the correctional centre in Whitehorse to a young offenders facility and a long term care facility, creating the largest biomass project in Whitehorse. According to a federal press release, the extended system will reduce emissions by 82 per cent, what the government estimates is the equivalent to removing 3,460 cars from the road for one year. 

The Yukon climate strategy includes plans to beef up emissions monitoring efforts across the territory. By 2030, every community will be able to track emissions from biomass use, the strategy states. 

There are also plans to compare the climate benefits of different kinds of biomass by 2021 in order to develop guidelines for “sustainable and low-carbon biomass use,” and plans to improve the Forest Resources Act to increase support for Yukon’s biomass industry by 2022.

Air emissions regulations will also be amended to minimize harmful air pollution from commercial and institutional biomass burning systems by 2025.

A 2018 report from the U.S.-based Partnership for Policy Integrity found that biomass energy facilities are often the recipients of large subsidies but represent high energy costs for ratepayers that cannot beat out cheaper wind and solar options. The analysis also found biomass plants were often in violation of air quality limits and can be a significant source of dangerous sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution.

“Wood is a very inefficient fuel.”

Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, who’s been studying the wood pellet industry for years, said, on the face of it, the problem is simple: biomass generates high volumes of emissions through the process of combustion.

“Wood is very comparable to coal, in terms of the amount of carbon attached to the energy,” she said.

When wood is pulled from the forest, it can contain upward of 50 per cent water, Booth noted. This is bad news when trying to squeeze energy out of it.

“It’s hard to get a hot fire out of wet wood, and the reason for that is a lot of the energy is being expended to boil off the water before you can make useful energy,” she said. “That’s why, per unit of energy, there’s more CO2 emissions from burning wood than from burning fossil fuels.

“Wood is a very inefficient fuel.”

How and where fuel wood is sourced from can mean higher or lower emissions. If wood from slash piles or dead wood is to be used, there will be fewer emissions, Booth said. Start using wood from intact forests, though, and emissions will climb, she said.

“If they’re burning residues or whatever, it’s definitely less bad than if they’re cutting more trees,” she said. “If your activity of fuel demand is driving additional logging that would not have otherwise happened, then that’s going to be a net negative for the atmosphere.”

“Burning trees is something that happens quickly, and trees regrow slowly. There’s going to be a net increase in emissions from burning more wood. That’s just basic common sense.”

Carcross/Tagish First Nation

Four buildings in the Carcross/Tagish First Nation community will be heated using biomass, harvested from local forests, by next winter. The community recently received $2.1 million in federal funds to support the growth of biomass systems. Photo: Carcross/Tagish First Nation / Facebook

First Nations-led biomass plants considered a success

The Yukon government’s climate change strategy also emphasizes support for First Nations operating biomass systems.

Long before the territorial government’s strategy was released, a number of Yukon First Nations were already turning to biomass to generate local power while also fostering Indigenous stewardship of land and resources. 

The Teslin Tlingit First Nation has been operating biomass boilers to heat 10 of the community’s buildings since 2018 and the program, funded with over $1 million from federal and territorial grants, has been seen as a success. A spokesperson with the First Nation wasn’t immediately available for comment.

In September, the Yukon government announced an additional $5.4 million in funds from the federal government aimed at reducing emissions through electric thermal storage heating and biomass energy projects, especially in First Nations’ communities

From that funding, an additional $800,000 will go to the Teslin Tlingit Council and $2.1 million will support a biomass heating system for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. 

Miles Dean, director of infrastructure for Carcross/Tagish First Nation, said four buildings will draw heat from biomass energy by next winter.

Wood will be harvested from dead trees primarily, but intact forests could eventually be logging in areas where the First Nation’s land claims have been settled, Dean said, adding that there could be plans to make a new subdivision, with wood harvested there being used for biomass efforts.

“We’re going to move forward and determine what our needs are and will be development plans from here on to ensure we have our required supply of chips,” he said.

There could be an additional three buildings heated with biomass in the future, Dean added.

The Kluane First Nation also received $346,000 from the federal government to create a forest management plan to support the community’s existing biomass energy heating system, which was set up in 1999. Through the plan, wood harvesting areas — for both citizens and the First Nation’s biomass needs — will be selected, Chief Bob Dickson said in an email to The Narwhal. 

Dickson said the volume of wood that is harvested for biomass efforts represents a small fraction of the surrounding forest.

“If forests are managed sustainably by way of maintaining a mix of different ages across the landscape, impacts will be mitigated,” he said. “This approach will also contribute to the resiliency of the forest ecosystem.”

The First Nation primarily relies on diesel power generation and heating oil, so biomass represents a better solution to steer clear of fossil fuels, Dickson added.

A spruce beetle outbreak, which peaked in 2004, caused upward of 90 per cent of spruce trees to die in the Kluane region, leading to increased fire risk, he said. If a wildfire occurs in the area, the carbon emissions that would be released would be significant, he added.

“An intense fire could negatively impact how the forest regenerates because it burns up the organic soil layer,” Dickson said. “For Kluane First Nation, it is really a case of use it or lose it.”

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