Editorial #15 – Biomass harvesting can have (bio)massive consequences

Green energy is swell. These days, not only are new technologies emerging to cut down our use of fossil fuels, preserving their supply and avoiding their emissions, but also public pressure is being exerted at unprecedented levels for provincial and federal governments to adopt these new fuels to replace their prehistoric counterparts.

In Nova Scotia, paradoxically, this government intervention might be detrimental to our environment; specifically, our forest ecosystems.The provincial government has committed to having twenty per cent of our energy come from renewable sources by 2013. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, included in the list of energy sources considered “renewable” is biomass.

Biomass energy is usually generated by burning waste products from agriculture or forestry – things like tree bark, wood knots, leaves, and stalks and stems from grains. This organic matter is burned, like other fuels, to drive a steam turbine, which generates power. The process has been around for a long time, and can be done very efficiently, cleanly and inexpensively. In fact, most pulp and paper mills already use it to some extent to minimize costs by generating at least some of their own power.

Now, however, with the new provincial energy regulations, there is more demand for biomass energy. Therefore in the words of Adam Smith, we’re going to need some supply up in this bitch, and companies are lining up to deliver, increasing production of biomass energy to actually sell it back into the grid where once they only produced enough for themselves.

This may sound great; after all, it’s more non-fossil fuel energy being made available to Nova Scotians, locally produced, and as a result of operations that are already in progress. The drawback lies in that last part: current forest harvesting operations are likely to be ratcheted up, both in extent and in ecological impact.

When a company’s forestry operation is not solely dependent on the cost of the trees that will be harvested for pulp or lumber, the company can access stands of trees, the accessing of which was formerly prohibitively expensive. Now, trees that are harvested during the road-building operation, but that are not of the species being sought, can be used for biomass. This opens up the possibility for clear-cutting essentially every stand of trees in the province.

Even more serious than the issue of access to new plots is the likelihood that trees will be harvested in a less sustainable manner. Currently, when stands of trees are clear-cut, at least some “waste” material (such as tree tops, branches, and stumps) is left behind, as it serves little purpose to the harvesting company.

The waste material does serve an extremely important purpose when left as waste, however. This material is vital in stabilizing soil, and preventing even more erosion than is already caused by clear cuts. It also acts as a sort of fertilizer, allowing for the regeneration of early colonizing species.

If energy can be generated and sold from this waste material, extremely little will be left behind. Cut-blocks look moonscaped enough without the complete degradation of their soil; soil that is deposited in streams, harming stream species and lost to the forest ecosystem.

The movement towards renewable energy is a pivotal moment in our history. For the first time since the invention of the combustion engine, attempts are being made at drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels and adoption of more permanent solutions to our energy needs. This change has to be made responsibly, however, taking into account direct, local, ecological effects, rather than just the broad, global consequences that are equally important but unequally media-friendly.

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