Opinion: Trees must go to their highest and best use, our business depends on it
February 22, 2021 By Gordon Murray, WPAC
As global demand for wood pellets continues to rise to new levels, so do stakeholder expectations around the management of the forests from which these pellets are sourced. The Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) and the province of British Columbia have built a global reputation as a leading supplier of responsible, renewable clean energy. This, in turn, has opened up new markets for our products, spurred investment and created 2,500 high quality jobs.
That reputation has come under fire recently, as British Columbians grapple with the benefits of local jobs and opportunities from a proposed wood pellet plant versus the large-scale harvesting of aspen logs from significant swaths of forests as raw material for these pellets. For the past few weeks, WPAC has been inundated with enquiries from around the world about our position on a recent proposal to transfer the tenure rights for this Fort Nelson forest license, located on public lands in B.C. Let me be clear: WPAC does not support wood pellet manufacturing proposals that are predicated on the large-scale harvesting of forests for the sole purpose of pellet production.
To fully appreciate WPAC’s position, it’s important to look at our roots. Our industry grew out of the demise of old beehive burners that were used to burn sawmill residuals, but which no longer met air quality regulations and had become an eyesore across the province’s vast interior landscape. Those residuals needed a new outlet and wood pellets provided a natural solution. Innovation in pellet production and a growing global demand for green energy has since resulted in unprecedented growth in this once fledgling industry. It is a win for the forests, a win for local air quality and a win for renewable energy producers trying to meet global climate targets. In short, it is the underpinning of our social license to operate.
WPAC’s history is rooted in a fundamental principle: responsible sourcing. That means our pellets are produced entirely from a combination of the waste or residuals left from harvesting and sawmilling activities, the limited quantities of low-quality logs that need to be removed for forest enhancement or salvage projects and material that can’t be used for any other purpose. We are opposed to initiatives that risk the reputation we have built as a leading global supplier in sustainable wood pellet production.
At our recent conference, Energizing Asia with Sustainable Low-Carbon Biomass, experts estimated that the pellet sector is forecast to reach about 51 million metric tonnes per year in 2027 – an increase of 40 per cent of the demand seen in 2019. This impressive growth will drive more investment in B.C. and will no doubt catch the eye of entrepreneurs looking for new business opportunities. However, the wood pellet growth cannot come at the expense of sustainability, for that will cause irreparable damage to all of the industry stakeholders.
Clearly this proposed forest license transfer aims to capitalize on the growing market for pellets. On paper, the deal will build a pellet plant, create local employment and utilize low-quality trees while shipping higher quality sawlogs to mills out of Fort Nelson. Because it involves the transfer of a forest license on public lands, with an allowable annual cut of 553,716 cubic metres per year, the Forest Act requires the Government of B.C. to consider the public interest including personal, community, environmental and economic values, and not only business relationships.
The proposal has drawn the ire of ENGOs both in B.C. and around the globe and raised concerns in the marketplace. This is not unexpected given the growing expectations and requirements that wood pellets not only meet the highest environmental standards but that trees harvested go to their highest and best use. To put it bluntly, there is no market for pellets from the logging of vast forests for the sole purpose of pellet production.
As we also heard at our conference, regulators, customers and certification systems around the world are increasing their scrutiny of supply chains. WPAC members welcome this – we believe our commitment to responsible sourcing gives us a competitive advantage globally and positions our companies and industry for long-term success.
WPAC welcomes new investments in the pellet industry which support community stability and meet the environmental standards here at home and the expectations of the global marketplace. We encourage projects that ensure trees are used for the highest use possible and where whole tree harvesting from public forest lands for wood pellets is the exception, not the norm. While large-scale logging for pellets might seem like an expedient solution to an underutilized public resource, in the long-term, it may have serious repercussions to the government’s reputation – jeopardizing business relationships and ultimately the stability of a $750 million industry and 2,500 jobs across B.C.
Gordon Murray is the executive director of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada.
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