Burning Trees to Kill Pine Beetles Worsens CO2 Emissions

The best thing we can do with a beetle altered forest is to leave it alone. The beetle pandemic is a problem we can’t fix and anything we do to the forest will just make CO2 emissions worse, especially burning the trees.

by Dave Neads

Everyone knows we have a carbon dioxide problem. In recognition of this, suppose you wanted to make some lifestyle changes to help reduce these emis­sions and be part of the solution to the climate change issue. Would you use a fuel that quadrupled your CO2 footprint, destroyed habitat, reduced job opportunities and required large government subsidies to produce? 

Paradoxically, that is exactly what the BC governmentis proposing with the Bioenergy strategy it is implementing as part of the BC Green Energy Plan.

One of the proposals in the plan is to utilize the bio­mass that has accumulated from dead trees ravaged by the pine beetle infestation. Converting the affected timber to bioenergy in the form of wood pellets and wood fired elec­tricity generation is deemed to help BC meet our electricity needs, supplement conventional natural gas and petroleum supplies, maximize job and economic opportunities, and protect our health and environment.

However, this “bioenergy” strategy contravenes the government policy on emissions, flies in the face of inter­national commitments and elevates cut levels substantially, destroying increasingly large areas of habitat.

What are the problems with burning trees, especially beetle killed trees, for electricity? On the surface it seems like a good idea to get rid of those dead trees, create jobs, reduce fire hazard and quickly re-establish a new young forest to replace the beetle damaged forest which covers much of the central interior of BC.

High C02 Emissions

Wood is a low grade fuel. Pound for pound it has only 35% of the energy intensity of diesel. As a result, burning it creates more than three times the CO2 emissions per mega­watt hour (MWH) than diesel does and over four times the CO2 emissions per MWH than the power we buy from the US Pacific Northwest grid.

One of the counter arguments is that this is OK because new trees will pull this carbon back out of the atmosphere as they mature, so we are just moving carbon around, not introducing anything new. This would be mostly true – if we could wait 125-to-250 years for the new trees to grow as replacements and lock up that carbon.

It takes 70 seconds to burn a tree for electricity. This process releases far more CO2 than natural decay would over the minimum 27 years, creating an immediate pulse of CO2 into the atmosphere. Add in the CO2 release caused by logging and soil disturbance and you begin to get the pic­ture. Logging also removes the understory; it will actually remove the new forest, resetting the biological clock back to zero. Finally, clearcuts, because of soil disturbance, re main CO2 sources for many years after logging, even when new seedlings are in place.

Yes, beetle killed trees will decay, releasing carbon as they rot. Due to changes in hydrology, the beetle killed trees are not standing as long as they did before. With so many dead trees, the water that they used to transpire is staying in the ground, causing water tables to rise and roots to rot faster.

The average time before a tree falls over is now re­duced to approximately 10 years. Once on the ground, the parts touching the soil rot faster than the elevated portions, making predictions of decay rates very difficult. However, the Ministry of Forests (MoF) estimate for pine to decay is 17 years. Add to this the 10 years before the tree falls over and you can see that it takes a minimum of 27 or more years for a tree to rot. As well, not all of the carbon in these trees will become CO2 since much of it will be resequestered by

biological and chemical means, and much will be taken up by the understory. The forest is not dead – there is a lot go­ing on in this ecosystem.

What about Wildfires?

Wildfires are often cited as a problem, being huge CO2 emitters. However, beetle altered forests are actually less prone to wildfires than green ones. It was a green forest that burned Kelowna, not a beetle altered one. Fire proof­ing around communities is a good idea, beetle altered or green, but to say that catastrophic wildfire will ensue if we don’t log the forest is a fallacy.

It is also an issue of scale. We can predict that the central interior will have more fires, but we cannot predict which 500 or 5000 hectares will be the site of the next fire. So you can’t log one area and fireproof the forest.

Taking all these factors into ac­count, from a CO2 emissions stand­point, the best thing we can do with a beetle altered forest is to leave it alone. The beetle pandemic is a problem we can’t fix and anything we do to the forest will just make CO2 emissions worse, especially burning the trees.

Subsidized and Locked In Contracts

To be economic, stand-alone Bioenergy proposals typi­cally need 750,000 to 1,000,000 cubic metres of wood per year to operate. Producing 60 MWH annually, these plants need a minimum 20 year licence with a payment schedule from BC Hydro of two to three times the rates paid for run of the river, wind, or current grid production. This trans­lates into a huge subsidy paid by the BC taxpayer to make bioenergy facilities viable.

Beetle killed trees will run out in 10 to 12 years. The proposed 20 year licences with renewal clauses will also have a “force majeure” clause which means that the com­pany will have to provide a firm power supply over the length of the contract. There is only one solution in this situation. When the beetle wood runs out, the company will have to switch to green trees, the very worst thing you can do from a CO2 standpoint, let alone considerations of habitat destruction.

Additionally, logging and burning green forest will steal wood from an already shrunken forest industry, which will be trying to cope with 60% or more Annual Allowable Cut reductions, scrambling to find wood to keep the mills running.

BioJob Outlook

Just one Bioenergy job will consume 6,000 cubic me­tres of forest per year compared to the current forest indus­try which provides one job, the provincial average, for each 1,000 cubic metres consumed. With no mill workers to sup­port, no transportation of wood products, no marketing in­frastructure, much lower taxes to pay on smaller buildings and less equipment, there is much less economic spin-off, yet millions of additional cubic metres will be logged. This is a very bad deal for the taxpayers of BC.

In the End

We live in a new world that is as different as the industrial revolu­tion was from the Middle Ages. No one really knows the scope, scale and depth of fundamental social and economic restructuring we are facing in the emerging post carbon world, but it is certain that it will be huge

We need to bring in truly car­bon-free energy sources. Wind, run of the river, solar – all are possible with the right policies in place.

Policies which merely try to stave off the inevitable by moving from high grade fuels to more polluting low grade carbon fuels like wood are merely throwing gasoline onto the fire. In the next 20 to 40 years any additional CO2 is a problem. For every unit of electricity we produce burning wood, we will have to reduce fossil fuel energy by 4 units just to keep treading water. This is a no-win situation.

To be fair, much of what the government proposes is forward thinking, much needed leadership. The CO2 reduc­tion targets of 33% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 coupled with carbon taxation, no coal, run of the river, wind and other truly green initiatives are good things. But when it comes to bioenergy, the current initiative is a huge mistake, both politically and environmentally.

The only solution is for BC to continue its leadership, to make bold new moves, to get fully behind non-carbon, CO2 free power. We must “Kick the Carbon Habit” and move ahead with a truly green energy package.


Dave Neads has been involved in conservation and interior forestry issues for twenty years and was a mem­ber of the Premier’s Task Force for Mountain Pine Beetle. He lives in the Precipice Valley outside of Anahim.

[From WS September/October 2008]

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