Smoke and Numbers: Do Green Claims for Burning Wood Add Up?

Wood chips, a climate-friendly fuel under Canadian law, will be processed and burned for energy in B.C.
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ for InvestigateWest

About our "Smoke and Numbers" Project

For a place with so much nature and such a green ethic, British Columbia has struggled to identify with any of the big next-generation sources of renewable energy.

Most of the province’s electricity comes from large hydro dams. That power is renewable. But efforts to expand production are fiercely contested. What about solar? Why not wind power?

Long summer days are offset by short and cloudy winter ones. So solar energy is an affair of the heart more than the pocketbook: one installation on a North Vancouver home will take an estimated two-and-a-half centuries to pay for itself.

Some of the world’s strongest winds are clocked off the northern tip of Vancouver Island. But getting power from Hecate Strait to southern markets is an overwhelming engineering challenge.

Then there’s biomass: plants that can be burned and replaced with new ones that suck back up the carbon that was released in the flames. British Columbia’s unofficial provincial motto could be “Trees’R’ Us.” Might the province’s forests turn it into a veritable Saudi Arabia of renewable biofuel? That day may be coming: shipments of B.C. fuelwood pellets are worth nearly $200 million a year to the provincial economy.

But with fire comes smoke — and inevitably, greenhouse gases. A growing chorus of biomass skeptics questions how green and climate-friendly wood fuel truly is.


Are Climate Claims for Burning Renewable Trees a Smokescreen?

UBC’s new $34-million Biomass Research and Development Facility is cutting edge in the age-old practice of converting wood to heat and power.
But the features that make the plant clean-burning also make it hard to replicate. And like UBC's old natural-gas-fired plant, it produces greenhouse gases. 
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/ for InvestigateWest

Nestled into a seaside forest on the University of British Columbia's lands, amid a carpet of sword ferns and salal, sits a gleaming industrial facility that’s been hailed as a significant step toward a carbon-neutral future for B.C., Canada and even the world.

The wood-gas fired plant just off Marine Drive in Vancouver, the university boasts,  “will reduce UBC’s natural gas consumption by 12 per cent and campus greenhouse gas emissions by nine per cent (5,000 tonnes), the equivalent of taking 1,000 cars off the road.”

“It’s very exciting,” said Brent Sauder, UBC’s director of strategic partnerships, who helped shape plans for the plant. “It’s not a research activity -- it’s a mission.”


Explore the Documents: Smoke and Numbers

Our series on biomass energy in British Columbia is based on government reports, academic studies, and industry publications.

Search the key documents here.


15 Key Dates in the History of Biomass Energy

Canada actively participated in the international negotiations that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that was supposed to start turning the tide on climate change. That pact committed Canada to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent by 2012 from 1990 levels. In the nearly two decades since, climate politics in Canada and British Columbia in particular have repeatedly whiplashed.

Here are 15 key events:

Document: Statistical Analysis of National and Washington State Fish Consumption Data

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Document: Coalition Letter to Gov. Inslee, April 2014

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Inslee weighs tenfold increase in cancer risk for fish eaters

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at the State of the State address in January. Flickr/Jay Inslee.

How much risk of cancer from eating fish is too much? Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has privately advanced a proposal that would likely pass legal muster but that worries Indian tribes and environmentalists. It would allow a tenfold increase in allowable cancer risk under the law.

It’s either that, the governor has told a panel of his advisers, or the state will have to consider regulatory breaks for polluters that the state has not traditionally granted in the past. For example: Giving factories, municipal sewage treatment plants and others who dump pollution into waterways 20 years or perhaps even more to come into compliance with new toxic-waste limits.

Caught in crossfire between Indian tribes and business interests, Inslee stepped into the controversy last spring after his predecessor, Christine Gregoire, short-circuited plans by the state Ecology Department to make water pollution rules more protective of people who eat a lot of fish. Gregoire’s move came a day after the former governor met with a senior Boeing Co. executive who strongly objected to tighter restrictions on toxic pollution, as InvestigateWest was the first to report.


Document: Letter from Business and Municipal Leaders to Gov. Inslee, April 2014

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