Pellet producers are defending themselves against accusations they’re grinding up whole logs that have better use elsewhere and, when subsequently burned as pellets, add to greenhouse gas emissions.
The accusation comes through a study released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that examined provincial government wood sales records, backed up by photos of log yards in the north, including Smithers, Houston and Burns Lake.
“Whole trees, indeed whole tracts of forest, are being logged with the express purpose of turning trees into a product that is then burned,” wrote study author Ben Parfitt.
Using whole logs goes against the foundation principle of pellet plants which is to use waste from sawmills, waste from logging or wood not considered suitable for sawmills or pulp mills as raw material.
But burning wood pellets with the claim that the practice is environmentally preferable to using coal to produce energy has been criticized as misleading as to the impact on the climate.
The study keyed on a plan by Peak Renewables to build a large pellet plant in northeastern B.C., a location in which there are no active sawmills, said Parfitt.
“The company says the mill’s biomass would come almost exclusively from logging the region’s aspen trees,” he wrote.
Parfitt also zeroed in on the recent purchase by British power-producer Drax of Pinnacle Renewable Energy, B.C.’s largest pellet producing company with 10 plants in B.C. and Alberta and one in Alabama with another under construction there. Its holdings along Hwy 16 include plants in Smithers, Houston and Burns Lake.
Purchasing Pinnacle will give Drax access to pellets needed to produce power at its British facilities.
Photos used in the study “show pellet mill yards filled with whole logs that are destined to be converted directly into pellets,” Parfitt wrote.
Pinnacle would not release exact details on the kind of fibre it does use to produce pellets but company official Karen Brandt did take issue with a photo of piled up logs taken at its Houston pellet plant and used to help illustrate Parfitt’s study.
“These are logs that have been rejected by the primary producers including pulp mills either because they are not sufficient quality or uneconomical; and would have otherwise ended up in a “waste” pile,” she replied to a question posed by Houston Today.
“We are 100 per cent committed to the highest and best use of every tree; our business relies 100 per cent on residuals from harvesting or sawmilling or fibre that no one else wants.”
Drax may have purchased Pinnacle outright, but Canfor has retained its 50 per cent ownership of the Houston pellet plant and supplies that plant via its Houston sawmill.
“Canfor makes every effort to maximize sawlog recovery from our harvesting activities for processing in our mills. In Houston, logs that don’t meet the quality of sawlogs are provided to the Houston pellet plant,” said company official Michelle Ward.
“In general, the logs used to produce pellets are either rotten, too small for sawlogs, or have other defects that reduce the quality of the log. In addition, we cannot process burnt logs as we cannot have charcoal in the woodchips that we provide to pulp mills. As a result, in the past, we have provided salvaged burnt wood to the pellet plant.”
“By processing lower quality logs into pellets, value is being added to fibre that would otherwise be left in the forest as waste or burned in slash piles and local jobs are supported at the pellet facility,” Ward said.
This is not the first time that the type of fibre used to make pellets has been raised along Hwy 16.
Last May, the Bulkley Valley Clean Air Now group in Smithers said the Pinnacle plant there had strayed from its original stated intent of using waste wood or residuals from manufacturing wood products.
Group member Len Vanderstar said the plant has been using whole, pulp quality logs and private land hardwoods since it opened.
Doug Donaldson, who was the Stikine MLA and provincial forests minister in 2020, said it had become uneconomical to ship pulpwood from the area to mills elsewhere.
“They’ve got enough of this pulpwood out there that’s currently being dumped onto slash piles for burning, so yeah, great, they’re at least utilizing it, that’s the good news, but that ain’t how it should be,” said Vanderstar at the time.
(With files from The Interior News, Smithers, B.C.)