Biomass availability in B.C.

Robert W. Gray
April 10, 2012
Written by Robert W. Gray
Apr. 10, 2012 - There is a significant volume of biomass on the landscape in British Columbia that needs to be removed in order to improve ecosystem resilience, sustainability and reduce the threat from wildfires facing rural communities. Standing in the way of dramatically increasing extraction are significant market impediments and constraints on access to feedstock.

The state of British Columbia’s forests is poor: they suffer from a large number of threats both man-made and natural. Insects and diseases abound, and there is the ever-present threat of high-severity wildfire due to an over-abundance of fuels.

Recently, the Commissioner of Public Lands for the State of Washington, Peter Goldmark, announced a Tier Two Forest Health Hazard Warning. The concern is that tree mortality is predicted to increase significantly across 900,000 hectares of eastern Washington due to a combination of climate change and past management, which has left them in an overcrowded and highly stressed state. No such public warning of forest health has come out of Victoria, yet the forests in question are directly adjacent to BC’s southern interior region. One only has to drive through the southern interior to see that a similar warning is overdue: mistletoe, bark beetles, root rots and defoliators (spruce budworm most notably) have all negatively affected forest sustainability and resilience In BC.

Another warning from an outside source came during the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February 2012 when Dr. Mike Flanagan from Natural Resources Canada predicted that climate warming is already leading to longer fire seasons and more intense fire behavior. Climate change is going to lead to more fire starts as well, with the northwest of North America possibly experiencing some of the most dramatic effects. In the last decade, the fire suppression burden on the taxpayers in BC (which does not include rehabilitation of burned areas, human health effects, insurance claims, etc.) exceeded $2 billion.

Restoring ecosystem sustainability and resilience in the face of a warming climate, and countless disturbance agents, is predicated on reducing the stress to the system. This is quite simple; it means reducing density and fuel loading. Reduced competition for soil moisture, soil nutrients and sunlight makes for healthier trees, while reductions in fuel loading make for more resilient forests.

Unfortunately, the material we need to remove from the forest has very little economical value as a sawlog, one of the higher value-added products coming out of the forest. It does, however, have value as a raw resource in the bioenergy sector where it can be converted into a wood pellet, syngas, bio-char, bio-plastics, etc.

There is a complicated set of variables involved in determining how economically feasible it is to access biomass on the landscape, such as the costs associated with getting the wood to the landing, sorting and processing, and transporting it to a manufacturing facility. Difficult terrain, low volume stands and long transportation distances all combine to increase the cost of the raw resource and limit what stands can be treated. Obviously, the higher the value of the end product the more biomass you can access economically.

Very little can be done to improve the in-woods and transportation economics, but less expensive equipment, or equipment/vehicles that run on liquefied natural gas for example, can make marginal improvements in these costs. The area where the greatest economic improvements can be made is in the value of the end product.

Currently, much of the waste biomass is being steered toward power (electricity) production. At current rates, the sale of power from cogeneration plants is so low that the production of electricity has to be subsidized. The subsidies come in many forms, such as reduced stumpage on Crown timber sales, harvest operations and hazardous fuel treatments that provide the feedstock for free, free mill site waste, free land clearing waste from real estate projects, special feed-in rates from BC Hydro, etc. Grinding of biomass at a landing and transporting the chips a relatively short distance to the cogeneration plant is the maximum that can be paid and still be profitable. Getting the material from the stump to the landing, and higher transportation costs, are two sets of variables that make power production uneconomical.

This fact has led to a scramble on the industry and government to identify all the sources of low-cost feedstock currently residing in the system. As a consequence of this focus on the electricity market and its limitations, significant volumes of biomass on the landscape are not being accessed (and will continue to constitute a significant fire hazard and cost to the taxpayer), and the province is losing out on a potentially lucrative global demand for solid and liquid bioenergy products that could in turn generate significant employment and tax revenues. As soon as we start to look to higher value-added products such as wood pellets, bio-chemicals, etc., with their higher willingness to pay, we will see greater economical accessibility of biomass.

So what is the impediment?

Reports such as the recent Bio-Economy Report, commissioned by the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation, and Dovetail Partners, Inc. 2011 report, Potential Impacts of Climate and Energy Policy on Forest Sector Industries: Providing Incentives for Bio-Energy While Protecting Established Biomass-Based Industries, correctly identified the problem as one of transition and transformation out of old industries and into new ones. Public and private investments have been made in a product line that now appears to have limited economic potential. Outside interests have a desire to enter the market with new, more valuable product lines, but can’t access the necessary feedstock. And those who are currently benefiting from the situation, and who control the feedstock, do not want to lose out on market position.

Situations such as this are not uncommon; one of the best examples of a recent need to transition/transform an industrial sector involves the use of corn as a raw resource in the production of ethanol. Corn growers enjoyed significantly higher profits when they grew corn and sold it to ethanol manufacturers versus growing it for food or livestock feed. But, when global food prices soared and food scarcities set in governments had to intervene and transition/transform the sector. While some argue that this is an unwarranted intrusion into the market, when you realize that the taxpayer heavily subsidized corn-ethanol production, this position is quickly eroded.

This example points out the need to consider not only economics in the process of transition/transformation, but also the needs of society. The highest and best use of corn in the latter example is as food, not fuel. That conclusion has both an economical element and a social element.

In the context of the forest health crisis in BC, it is paramount that the government of BC lead the process of sector transformation, determine the highest and best use of the biomass so that it constitutes a social and economical benefit to not only Canadian and multinational corporations but also the rural communities of BC, and that the transformation take place sooner rather than later.

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