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Renewable energy industry runs roughshod over forests

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Renewable energy reliant on burning forests is damaging the environment in NSW (image by Vera Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures)

An environmental activist with more than four decades of service has called out the NSW Government over the massive and deliberate destruction of forests. 

Burning remaining forests for bioenergy is environmental vandalism, says Al Oshlack, founder of the Indigenous Justice Advocacy Network (IJAN). He is a veteran of many successful legal challenges against governments.  

Oshlack told IA: 

What we’re seeing is a repeat of what happened in Tasmania and the south coast of NSW: massive wood-chipping operations now on an industrial scale. What’s happening is not just logging but mass clear-felling, taking the destruction of our remaining forests to a whole new level.   

 

This massive clearing of forests is rapidly becoming a humanitarian problem with significant impacts on water quality and the amount of water that can get to rivers and creeks. What will happen when the next drought hits? 

He said, further: 

The IJAN is chasing forests operations all over the place. To the best of my own knowledge, ten or eleven forest coupes in northern NSW are being clear-felled to be burned as biomass energy.  

 

There’s no notification or consultation. The industry just puts something up on their website a week prior to operation and is in there before anyone can try and stop them. They say they have the protection of the law that prevents any person litigating to protect threatened species, Indigenous cultural heritage and the environment.

 

This is a burned earth policy. 

Renewable energy focused on burning forests is creating an environmental nightmare in NSW. Logging and clear-felling forests for electricity is a deadly combination with dire consequences. This industry is the last straw in as a scorched earth policy being driven by the Commonwealth and NSW governments.

Nor are there any legal remedies. Instead, legislation at the state and federal level protects the forest industries, allowing logging and giving free rein to the renewable industry without proper environmental impact studies or access to legal challenge.  

Certain provisions in the Forestry Act 2012 (NSW) deny any access to legal challenges. The essence of the problem are the privative clauses in the Act, preventing anyone from being able to halt the logging or burning.

Judicial review of decisions made by the Government isn't available.

This is an astounding scenario. Coastal forests being cleared, wildlife struggling trying to survive are deprived of any future, bushfire mortality ignored and no rights for the public to take legal action.

More than 3 billion animals died or were displaced in the bushfires earlier this year. Climate change impacts on the ancient land are already evident, yet no government is prepared to address the ramifications with legislation or proper policies.

The calamity created by the renewable industry burning biomass is not being reported in mainstream media. 

Euphemistically described as the “use of native forest biomass” and “wood waste", definitions vary according to the many NSW and Commonwealth government websites devoted to this non-renewable energy. In fact, most of the websites are so confusing and contradictory that their content may well be a deliberate act of obfuscation.

Energy NSW website goes so far as to describe biomass burning as:

'Bioenergy comes from organic matter called biomass. Biomass sources include crops, forests, grasses and waste. If burnt, biomass releases carbon dioxide (CO₂) which can be reabsorbed through photosynthesis during the regrowth of biomass crops.'

This "description" was contradicted by the Australian Forest & Climate Alliance in their submission to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA):

In the case of regrowth forests, multiple decades are required to restore carbon stocks to pre-logged levels, in the case of primary forests, centuries. Even if we relied only on trees purpose planted today, logging and burning them in 2030 would result in an emission pulse right on the first milestone in the path to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. 

 

The only way forests can contribute to reducing emissions by 2030 and 2050 is if native forests currently logged for wood production are instead protected and allowed to grow to maturity to continue to sequester carbon.

 

Native forest biomass are trees.   

According to the Bob Brown Foundation

'The definition of waste used by the woodchip industry is any tree not suitable for saw-logging.  This ranges from 30-75 per cent of the total volume and in some instances up to 90 per cent of the wood removed from a logged forest.'

According to the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE), in response to questions from IA, there are only two facilities licenced by the Environment Protection Authority 'for the generation of electrical power otherwise than from coal, diesel, or gas and are permitted to receive wood waste, including non-native weed species, forest and sawmill waste residue'.

At a Senate Estimates Committee on Environment & Communications Legislation Committee Supplementary Budget Estimates, on the 'use of native forest biomass by renewable energy power stations', ten power stations were listed in NSW in October 2015.    

Although the spokesperson for DPIE did not provide the names of the owners of the two licenced facilities, the plants are at Condong and Broadwater owned by Cape Byron Power Pty Ltd. Former sugar mills, once owned by the NSW Sugar Milling Cooperative, they are now co-regeneration plants owned or capitalised by foreign investment.

Their website describes the company and its operations as:

Cape Byron Power, operated by Cape Byron Management, consists of two 30 MW biomass-fired power stations, on the NSW north coast. Together, these form one of the largest renewable baseload generators in Australia.

 

Our electricity is predominantly produced from sugar cane milling waste, along with certain types of wood residues and energy crops, commonly referred to as 'biomass' fuel.

“Wood residues” became forests in 2014 when the Government made exemptions to the Protection of the Environment Operations (General) Amendment (Native Forest Biomaterials) Regulation 2013

These types include:

'Certain native forestry materials resulting from forestry operations carried out on land to which an Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (IFOA) or Private Native Forestry plan and Code of Practice applies.'

Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (IFOA) forests are covered by the Regional Forest Agreement Act 2002 between the Commonwealth and NSW which don't allow legal challenges and have a 20-year lifespan.

The IFOA approvals do not require any approval under the Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) according to the response to IA from DPIE spokesperson:

Approval under EPBC Act is not required. The harvesting of native timber within state forests must comply with Integrated Forestry Operations Approvals (IFOAs). The IFOAs require that the primary objective of all forestry operations is producing high value products. 

 

The Protection of the Environment Operations (General) Regulations 2009 prohibits the burning of native forest biomass to generate electricity, with the exemption of certain types of legally cleared invasive native vegetation and waste from legal native forestry operations.

Unfortunately, the spokesperson fails to spell out that there is no possibility of any legal challenges and that any provisions contained in Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 are likely trumped by the privative clauses in the Forestry Act.

The NSW and Commonwealth governments have created a juggernaut of agencies, regulators, councils, focused on renewable energy. At the Commonwealth level, energy comes under Minister Angus Taylor's portfolio. In NSW, licences for burning forest biomass are jointly signed by Environment Minister Matt Kean and Deputy Premier John Barilaro.

These governments have taken steps to ensure the forestry industries are protected from any legislation, can damage our wildlife heritage, cause immense damage to rivers and creeks and have profound impacts on climate change.

As burned forests struggle to regenerate, feeding koalas and other folivores on new growth, the renewable energy industry is wiping out any chance of survival or regeneration. Unburned forests are also targeted by the regeneration industry, with one conservation organisation indicating that entire forests can be burned for renewal energy.

As Al Oshlack says: 

“Burning an unsustainable resource for electricity is outrageous. It’s a money loser, taxpayers and communities are being ripped off. We have governments subsidising these forest vandals at taxpayers’ expense. This can’t go on."

EDITORS NOTE

A spokesperson from Cape Byron Power contacted IA after this article was published with the following statement:

Cape Byron Power is proud to be continuing over 150 years of renewable energy generation in the Northern Rivers region.

As a leader in responsible and sustainable biomass power generation, we want to take the opportunity to correct some claims made in the above article regarding Cape Byron Power. 

We have never and will never, source fuel directly from native or state forests, and we stand by this.

The article makes the claim that the logging operations occurring throughout NSW are for the express purpose of providing fuel for biomass energy generators such as Cape Byron Power. This is simply not the case.

The logging operations in question are occurring in plantation forests and managed by varying forestry harvesting companies and government bodies, and is a process we have no say or involvement in.

At times we have accepted fuel loads in response to community concern regarding wastage being left behind following logging operations to prevent infield burning of tops/trash/slash — that is. the materials left over after harvest of the plantation timber.

However, the vast majority of our fuel is sourced from plant fibre left over from the sugar cane harvest each year after the cane juice has been removed by the sugar mills.

Again, we do not source and fuel directly from native or state forests.

We have been working hard with local community groups to ensure our operations meet community expectations and continue to do so. You can learn more about our operations by visiting https://www.capebyronpower.com/facts.html.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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