A future for biomass in Ontario
February 16, 2016
By Dianne Saxe Environment Commissioner of Ontario
February 16, 2016 - I started my legal career in the public service, and this role, as Environmental Commissioner is a chance to make a difference on issues that I think matter most.
For all Ontarians, there is a need to educate people on the role of the Environmental Bill of Rights. The fundamental idea behind the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) is that environmental decisions are too important to be left to just government.
The Ontario EBR was the first instrument of its kind in the world to recognize that mandate and to give it concrete mechanisms for action. They are not perfect… but they’re not bad. It gives people an opportunity to contribute ideas, facts and information that the government might not be aware of. It is also a chance to put important issues on the government’s policy agenda.
The biomass sector has been built on innovation. I am asking the universities to look at what they’ve got in their research. What are they doing that is relevant to public policy? They might very well know things that the government does not; the government doesn’t always have the ability to know the latest and best about everything.
The universities have really knowledgeable professors and graduate students (often working with the private sector) who are doing wonderful work in areas that are relevant to the areas of environment, energy and climate change (my three mandates. Why not have them submit an Application for Review based on good, solid facts resulting from research done at the school? That is something I want to encourage.
I am especially interested in low-carbon fuel options and what companies can do to encourage innovation. There are a lot of different ways to think about transportation fuels. Leaving aside whether or not current vehicles can run based on strengthened biofuel blending percentages, right now, is ethanol’s climate impact (all things considered) lower than gasoline? I have seen analyses that say yes and some that say no. If it were completely clear that technology had advanced so much that ethanol was not only compatible with the cars, but it also didn’t increase emissions and had a net climate benefit, then I think governments would be in a different position. But those three things, at least, would need to be proven before it would make sense to look at increasing the blending percentages.
On the woody biomass front, the impacts associated with entire lifecycle of the fuel feedstock and final product must be considered, because it is the cumulative or whole range of impacts that matters to regulators and citizens.
Humans have burned wood to cook and stay warm for a very, very long time. Lots of rural communities continue to heat with wood. It can be done very sustainably if the wood is grown, harvested and transported appropriately. Of course, we have to consider localized impacts of odour and particulates
We have harvested forests in Ontario every year as part of our economy since European settlement and before, and there are costs and consequences to that, for sure. The question becomes how should we use biomass? From the point of view of burning wood and pellets, for all kinds of heat and energy generation, it has enormous potential if it is done sustainably.
I am counting on leaders in your sector to continue to develop new approaches and technologies. I think we will, see ever more support for the sector as long as innovation continues, and real environmental benefits result. I am convinced, that in the near future there will be even greater opportunities to build more and more biomass use into our lives.
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