The kind of forest biomass they’re talking about in Nova Scotia works by burning wood to convert it to energy. Supporters say biomass is carbon neutral: unlike fossil fuels such as coal, there is a constantly replenished supply of plants gobbling up the carbon dioxide.
Burning biomass also doesn’t have the sulphur and nitrogen pollutants you get with coal, points out Jamie Simpson of Ecology Action Centre. But he says only with “exemplary practice” could biomass be truly carbon neutral. And he’s not hopeful.
Simpson has been the main voice behind the growing sentiment that, left unchecked, biomass harvesting could ruin Nova Scotia’s forests. “Right now in Nova Scotia I don’t think that we’re ready to pursue biomass on any sort of a large scale for renewable energy.”
It’s because, he says, there’s not enough regulation in place to keep private lots from whole-tree harvesting, a practice that removes small trees, tree tops and branches—parts left behind with traditional clear-cutting—leaving the soil close to barren and, says Simpson, releasing carbon normally stored there.
“It’s a very destructive practice, and I think when people see it they intuitively know that this is simply not good for our forests,” says Simpson, referring to a woodlot in Upper Musquodoboit denuded with whole-tree harvesting by Northern Pulp.
Some insist exemplary practice is possible: a report commissioned by the Nova Scotia government says biomass should generate 15 percent of the province’s renewable energy. David Wheeler co-authored the report, released December 15 by Dalhousie’s Faculty of Management, and says we can reach a gold standard.
For Wheeler the answer is simple: don’t do business with any company that uses unsustainable foresting, “It wouldn’t be possible for us to endorse, as part of the renewable energy strategy, anything other than the best possible forestry practices.”
Wheeler says as the biomass industry grows in Nova Scotia, harvesters who manage their forests in a sustainable way will be rewarded in the long-term. “What we’re talking about here is potentially diverting cash out of economies like Colombia and South Africa for coal. That’s why we believe the cash flow is there to ensure these better forest practices.”
But whole-tree harvesters don’t necessarily follow Wheeler’s business logic, says Simpson. “The companies we’re seeing doing this are ones that perhaps are looking less at long-term sustainability and more at short-term economic return for their parent company shareholders.”
Northern Pulp’s harvest near Upper Mosquodoboit was “certified green” by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a non-profit founded by the American Forest and Paper Association. Simpson says the SFI “greenwashes” logging companies, to make them appear environment-friendly. “If this is certifiable as green,” he says, “I would hate to see what isn’t.”
A blanket policy banning whole-tree harvesting would help lift some of the unease, says Simpson. “It would set the standard across the board for forestry companies. It would help those companies that are already doing the good work on the ground, because it would level out the playing field for them.”
Simpson says the government has to act soon, before the practice of whole-tree harvesting gains any more traction. “Now is the time to put some regulation in place, because companies haven’t really made that investment into machinery they could use to carry out whole-tree harvesting.”
The Department of Natural Resources is drawing up standards for whole-tree harvesting, but they will only apply to Crown-owned land.There are still no regulations for privately owned land.