A controversial plan to burn harvested sections of North Coast native forests to generate so-called ‘renewable’ electricity has been widely derided by the Greens and environment groups.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) revived the plan, first mooted in 2012 following the collapse of the woodchip industry, at yesterday’s (November 22) Bioenergy2017 conference in Sydney.
DPI research scientist Fabiano Ximenes, who presented the findings, said the two-and-a-half-year project ‘analysed the production forests surrounding regional hubs Grafton, Kempsey and Bulahdelah.’
‘The research showed that there are… exciting opportunities in the production of biofuels and high-value chemicals, so there is significant untapped potential in NSW forests,’ he said.
According to the report, any potential impacts on the environment from the use of biomass can be ‘effectively addressed by management actions; for example, via the retention of sufficient biomass in the forest to maintain biodiversity values.’
Mr Ximenes said use of the biomass for bioenergy ‘has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emission, due to the displacement of fossil fuels’.
‘There are also additional benefits of removing the residues that would otherwise decay or burn in the forest, such as a reduction in forest management operational costs, reduced fuel loads and supporting regional development by creation of a new industry,’ he added.
Sheer madness: NEFA
But North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) spokesperson Dailan Pugh has described the plan as ‘sheer madness’ and said it had more to do with seeking a replacement industry for woodchipping than cleaning up the forest floor.
‘Forests are the lungs of the earth: they take in our carbon dioxide, storing the carbon and giving us back oxygen. Left standing they are part of the solution to climate change,’ Mr Pugh said, ‘but cut down they become part of the problem.’
‘Burning forests to generate electricity doesn’t make sense, we lose the tree’s ability to take in and store carbon, and when they are burnt they release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than burning coal.
‘The forestry “residues” DPI are proposing to use are tree trunks (down to 10cm diameter and at least 2.5m long) with the crowns, branches, defective stems, and stumps left behind in the forest. Most of these will come from logging trees that would otherwise be retained.
‘This proposal is all about increasing logging intensity and developing a new market to replace export woodchipping as the sawlog resource is progressively cut out.
‘The reality is that logging has run down the carbon storage in vast tracts of NSW’s forest by 40-60 per cent. As logging intensity increases the carbon stored in the trees and soil, along with the forest’s structure and biodiversity, is further diminished,’ Mr Pugh said.
Driving climate change: NPA
The National Parks Association has described the proposal as ‘perverse’ and called upon Premier Berejiklian to resist the DPI’s call.
NPA senior ecologist Dr Oisín Sweeney said it was ‘hard to imagine a worse idea than this.’
‘Given what we know that biomass use overseas is driving deforestation, and the evidence that burning forests for power is driving climate change, this is reckless in the extreme,’ Dr Sweeney said.
‘Coming from a government department that has a responsibility to serve the public interest moves it from merely ill advised to downright irresponsible.
‘North Coast forests are one of just 36 global biodiversity hotspots. Koala populations are in steep decline—partly due to intensive native forest logging. Now this suggestion to burn them.
‘Survey after survey shows strong community support for genuine renewables like solar, yet this idea would have us use stone age technology,’ Dr Sweeney said.
Dead koala power: Greens
NSW North Coast Greens MLC and forests spokesperson Dawn Walker has coined the term ‘dead koala power’ in relation to the plan.
‘Koala populations are plummeting across NSW and rather than looking at serious ways to protect our precious koalas, like supporting the Great Koala National Park plan, we see outrageous proposals like this that will intensify logging in vital koala habitat across the NSW North Coast.
‘Using forests to produce energy is madness when we know it takes decades for new trees to absorb carbon, which is released when we burn timber from forests for energy.
‘Put simply, this bioenergy proposal is nothing more than a naked attempt to increase the intensity of logging operations in our precious North Coast forests and obliterate more koala habitat.
‘If this government is at all serious about addressing climate change or preventing the extinction of wild koalas in NSW, they would immediately rule-out this proposal that essentially equates to “dead koala power”,’ Ms Walker said.