Bad forestry meets problematic energy policy in N.S.

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Add this up if you can. After decades of public outrage and expert testimony about too much clearcutting in Nova Scotia and a three-year process to create a natural resources policy meant to bring about sustainable forestry, the NDP government appears to be sending the whole thing up in smoke at the last minute.

Literally. Last spring, an electricity strategy announced, out of the blue and without supporting figures, that there were 500,000 dry tonnes (one million standing tonnes) of timber available for biomass energy -- burning wood for electricity. That was before the natural resources policy that's supposed to establish cutting levels even came out. According to the Ecology Action Centre, that's an increase in cutting of 20 per cent over the levels considered unsustainable.

Now there's a rush to the treasure. In addition to the controversial 60 megawatt NewPage Corp. project at Port Hawkesbury, there's Nova Scotia Power at its Trenton coal-fired plant, Northern Pulp in Pictou County and even the military contractor Lockheed Martin, which does that sort of thing in the U.S. and wants to set up in Cape Breton. A company spokesman even talked of "export potential."

The treasure here is not so much the biomass in itself as the public subsidies. Call it subsidy harvesting -- a practice that has never ceased since the big pulp mills were established here in the 1960s with massive forestry grants, and which have had a power of blackmail over forest policy ever since: pay up or lose hundreds of jobs. Once again, you and I will be paying for most of this through provincial and federal funds being lavished on them in various ways -- the NewPage boiler, for instance, will cost $208 million in public money.

And the natural resources policy is still not out, although it was due before the end of 2010. Instead, the former minister, John MacDonell, has been replaced by Pictou West's Charlie Parker who, one environmentalist points out, "has a pulp mill in his riding and will be expected to know what's what." MacDonell, who seems like one of the more capable NDP ministers, had emphasized that "things will change" and announced an intention to reduce clearcutting to 50 per cent of the total cut within five years. But this was just an intention, and now it's up in the air.

Nevertheless, the word got around and woods contractors and companies have increased their clearcutting in anticipation of this deadline, upping the pressure even more.

Burning wood that's no good for lumber is a good idea. I do it myself -- I have a wood stove -- and so do many homeowners, businesses and institutions. Used this way, it's highly efficient. But to feed central power grids with it is to waste most of it and reduce the forest to its lowest possible value as a resource.

Combine bad forestry with a problematic energy policy and it gets worse. One reason for biomass is so NSP can meet its renewable energy deadline of 40 per cent by 2020. But since wood is almost as polluting as coal, what's the point, especially if you're devastating the forest even more? And conservation, which ultimately will be the No. 1 option as prices rise, is a poor distant cousin in this equation.

Plus, perversely, the new community feed-in tariff that subsidizes alternatives is proposed to be 12 per cent higher for biomass than for small-scale wind power (the Utility and Review Board has yet to make a final determination), with solar not being covered at all. Consider what Lockheed Martin and a local partner are proposing (and don't ask me how this fits into a definition of "community") -- a 25 megawatt plant at the Harbourside Commercial Park outside Sydney to supply heat and power to the park and sell the rest to the grid. A combination of solar, wind and smaller biomass would make sense, but the policy discourages it. Twenty-five megawatts, combined with all the other projects in eastern Nova Scotia, sounds more like an assault than a plan.

The natural resources policy, although delayed by what looks like excuses, is still supposed to come out. We'll still wait and see, although reconciling sustainable harvesting, which was urged in no uncertain terms by the final report of the natural resources consulting process, with what's going on looks like squaring the circle.

Meanwhile, I'm finding people who expected progress from the NDP on the energy/environment/forest file in a state ranging from dismay to fury. "I miss the Tories. How's that for a statement!" said one environmentalist, adding that the Environment Department has become invisible under minister Sterling Belliveau. Meanwhile, the NDP keeps dropping in the polls, despite some solid work in some other sectors. Alienate all the environmentalists, and that might happen.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County in Nova Scotia. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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