Slash Piles Burned in the Air or for Bioenergy: Example from British Columbia

Forest companies regularly burn slash piles after harvesting a site for lumber and pulp. Bioenergy companies say slash burning is a waste because they could use the waste material to create pellets.

It’s always interesting to see how our northern friends deal with similar forests with different social, political and economic views. This is from Prince George BC. Thanks to the Forest Business Network for providing this link!

The issue is burning slashpiles in the open air instead of selling the material for bioenergy, and the policies that work against it.

“We want to put it to productive use,” said Stirling. “The idea that we don’t have to burn things into the airshed, we can mitigate the risk of forest fire, and take that forest residual in as a product we can make use of, products we can sell into Japan where we are offsetting nuclear and coal emissions, what could be better?”

All wood-pellet (also called bioenergy, biomass or biofuel) plants in northern B.C. already sell as much product as they can manufacture, as fast as they can make it.

Most of it goes to Asia or Europe where it is used in industrial furnaces or electricity generation facilities to reduce the amount of coal, natural gas, nuclear and the worst of the greenhouse gases pollutants used by factories, mills and communities.

Pacific Bioenergy recently signed the biggest contracts in the history of the fledgling bioenergy sector, a sector that was pioneered out of Prince George. These pacts are for the largest amounts of pellets ever asked for and for the longest duration ever established.

Here’s why PacBio and the other pellet companies can only stare at these grey skeletons of trees – entire forests of the stuff.
“There may not be saw-log material in that stand, but there certainly is material – ideal material, actually – for our business,” said Stirling but he explained that by provincial legislation, only the lumber company with the charter for that forest is allowed to cut it down and they are only allowed to cut down a set number of trees per year. If they cut down the dead pine, even to give it away to the pellet plants, that leaves them unable to cut down the equivalent amount of trees they need to make lumber.

Furthermore, a lumber company has to pay stumpage (a fee to the taxpayers’ bank account in Victoria) on every tree they cut, but the fee is too high if it’s only going to sell at pellet rates. Stirling said what’s needed is a government policy allowing for biomass harvesting of the otherwise useless timber so that it doesn’t count against the associated lumber company’s harvesting rights. Also, a stumpage rate has to be implemented by Victoria that charges an amount realistic for pellet sales instead of lumber sales.

There is another hurdle, though and it pertains to the brush piles. The lumber companies are held to rigid tree-planting requirements that gets in the way of bioenergy companies moving in to collect the woody debris.

“Don’t give out a contract on December the 10th and say you have to have it done by March 31st,” said Parfitt, illustrating a typical scenario. “What if it snows? What if the roads aren’t in shape until June? And that is why they (lumber companies) want it to burn, because they don’t want to plant it later,” as waiting for the right conditions for bioenergy staff and machines to go in and get the piles sets the treeplanting process back.

O’Donnell said, “That’s where it’s frustrating, because Canfor and Lakeland and all those guys understand that and will make concessions for us to go in there and get their piles. FFT (Forests For Tomorrow, a government program for forest management) and the B.C. government? No.”

It might be changing, said Stirling, offering cautious hope despite it being too late for a lot of piles already in flames.

7 thoughts on “Slash Piles Burned in the Air or for Bioenergy: Example from British Columbia”

  1. I’m not entirely sure what all the answers are; however, I also wonder what a full cost accounting of collecting woody material left in slash-piles in forests and then collecting and trucking that material X miles to a wood pellet manufacturing plant to be process and then trucking (or railing?) those wood pellets X miles to an export dock and then shipping those wood pellets X miles across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean to be burned in Asia or Europe looks like at the end of the day.

    • Matthew, that’s an interesting point. I wonder whether those are accounted for in the importers’ carbon calculations. And I believe that in California the bioenergy plants had problems with putting particulates in the air. So maybe other countries have better technology?

      • One way of looking at CO2 emissions is that we emit both fossil CO2 (oil, coal, natural gas) or biogenic CO2 (ethanol, wood pellets, bio-oil from the biochar process, biodiesel from vegetable oil, etc.). That is, we can take CO2 from outside of the biosphere and add it to the biosphere, or we can use CO2 that’s already in the biosphere, thus not adding to what’s already present in the atmosphere, soils, oceans, etc.

        Of course, we can’t simply switch to fuels that produce only biogenic CO2 all at once. It’s not one or the other. But I suggest that using biogenic CO2 when and where we can — even if direct and indirect emissions of CO2 are greater — is better, because we’re not adding more fossil CO2 to the biosphere.

        In this light, it might make sense to tax or otherwise limit emissions of fossil CO2, but not biogenic CO2.

  2. I’m not sure how the economics works in Canada, but in the US I think that it would be a money loser. Where I worked (central California) we tried to sell (for very low prices) biomass from our NF fuel reduction projects for 20 plus years. And we tried and tried. Almost all of the material (submerch, and tops and limbs from whole tree yarding) was readily accessible in big piles at landings. While we were able to sell a few piles to fuelwood producers or to cogen suppliers, the vast majority (95 plus percent) of our piles went up in smoke. Why? The few users of biomass in the area were able to supply their plants more locally (orchard prunings); transportation costs from our locations were too high.

    • Apparently the economics are better in BC, it would be interesting to know why- perhaps because they are shipping the pellets overseas. But there are ports in California. Time to call up our local forest economists.

  3. It wasn’t that many years ago that portable chippers where seen in the woods. Then price of those chips got so low it was no longer economical. I would much rather see forests resources that you can’t make lumber from turned into energy than just turned into more smoke.
    Sounds like they have a bit of a provincial government problem as well.

  4. A big part of the issue for processors in some places where I have worked is that the supply they need to make things pencil out is not consistently available – that is often cited as the largest hurdle (or perhaps just an excuse?). BC may have a more consistent supply and perhaps more consistent prices?


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