The prospect of using wood — even junky, beetle-gnawed wood — as raw material for bioenergy should provide a little hope for British Columbia’s troubled, beetle-gnawed forestry industry. The Vancouver Sun reports on a PricewaterhouseCoopers assessment that after a couple of very bad years (thanks to the surging mountain pine beetle, the strong Canadian dollar, and low U.S. housing starts), new markets are opening for B.C. wood that is right now sitting in big stacks of waste in the Interior:
PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Craig Campbell said traditional pulp and lumber production, particularly in the pine beetle-ravaged Interior, is going to give way to bioenergy, smoothing over the boom-and-bust cycles that characterize the industry today
In a later interview, Campbell said the industry is buzzing over the potential of electrical generation. BC Hydro has committed to promoting bioenergy and the key question remaining is what kind of subsidy it will offer producers.
“We are getting phone calls to do studies for energy companies vis a vis the wood supply. There is a lot of momentum and interest. That’s where I see we are going to shift: from traditional lumber to energy.”
Before anybody gets too excited, though, Campbell acknowledges that this does nothing for dozens of B.C. sawmills and their thousands of high-paying jobs. If people aren’t buying lumber, or the mills are in beetle-devastated areas, they’re not going to survive. So the idea of using B.C. wood for biofuel is a cushion for the end of the fall, not new sputterings of life in the engines.
(Furthermore, in a parallel to ethanol subsidies and mandates’ sucking corn out of the food supply and driving up prices for corn-derived products, Campbell points out that energy subsidies in Europe drove up the price of wood and put some traditional wood-products makers out of business. That doesn’t seem likely to happen in B.C. immediately, since they’ve got so much timber that’s not worth processing that it’s just being allowed to rot, but it is worth keeping an eye on.)
This is the sort of thing I imagine will happen a great deal in a world with a changing climate. I’ve never thought the human race to be facing a heat apocalypse, though that’s often the view that climate-change skeptics attribute to those who are worried about it (whatever their other merits, books like George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, particularly its sensational subtitle, are not helpful). I do worry about our prosperity and comfort, however, balanced on a knife’s-edge as it is.
Consider the sequence here.
- B.C. winters get a little warmer. Mountain pine beetles begin surviving in numbers, starting to feed and breed and spread earlier in the year.
- Whole swathes of previously productive forests devastated.
- Sawmills close. Logging operations shut down.
- Resourceful people think of another use for damaged wood: Bioenergy!
- (Projecting into the future a bit) Government begins subsidizing this use of wood, taking a bit of everyone else’s money to do so.
- Logging industry limps back, a shadow of its former self but still operating. Kind of.
The pine beetle is explicitly not the B.C. forestry industry’s only problem, but it is a big one. Sure would have been good if we could have stopped this whole process before step 1.