'Devastating' changes allow forests to be burned for power

The O’Farrell government has opened the way for the state’s forests to be used to generate electricity in a move blasted by the Greens as “devastating”.

Anthony Roberts, the Minister for Resources and Energy, said on Friday that modifications to environmental protection regulations would allow trees otherwise destined for pulp and paper production to be burnt in power stations. Invasive native species and offcuts of sawlogs could also be burnt for power.

Mr Roberts said the move would be monitored by the Environment Protection Authority “to ensure there is no increase in the intensity of clearing or logging”.

Maree McCaskill, managing director of the NSW Forest Products Association, welcomed the decision saying it would ‘‘allow better use of a by-product that’s currently not being used’’.

Some of the waste material was now being left on the forest floor, adding to fuel loads that raised fire risks, she said. ‘‘Finally, we’ll able to link up the full renewable cycle.’’

However, upper house Greens MP John Kaye said the move would expose new native species to logging and perpetuate the ailing woodchip industry that currently consumes about 1 million tonnes of trees a year from the forests in the state’s south-east.  Subsidies for the native forest industry already cost $8 million a year, he said.

“The one chance we had of saving those forests has now been lost, into the furnaces of power stations,” Mr Kaye said, adding that carbon emissions are likely to be as high as six times that of burning coal.

Labor action

Labor’s leader in the upper house and environment spokesman Luke Foley said his party would join the Greens in seeking to disallow the action - which took effect from 2pm on Friday - when the chamber resumes in the week after next.
‘‘We made it illegal to burn native vegetation to generate power,’’ Mr Foley said. ‘‘It’s an achievement of the Carr Labor government that is being reversed by the Coalition.’’

Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre, called the move – to be gazetted by the government later on Friday – “greenwash”, and said his organisation would call for consumers to boycott the power generated from biomaterials.

“This new law is an attack on the environment because it is underlain by the O’Farrell government’s progressive weakening of forest and woodland fauna protections, and is a strut for the clear-felling by the woodchippers who are losing pulp market share,” Mr Angel said.

A spokesman for Mr Roberts, though, said the change would allow consumers, particularly mines in the state’s west, to use “a cleaner, more renewable-friendly form of energy”.

“It’s not designed to grow the renewable or biomass industry by doing more logging,” the spokesman said. “It’s to make better use of the waste that’s there at the moment.”

All private electricity operators will have to keep a detailed record of the amount of biomass they receive and burn and where the material is sourced from, Mr Roberts said. The Forestry Corporation of NSW will also publicly report on its website the volumes and state forest areas supplying the biomass.

“The EPA will audit this information, including using satellite imagery where appropriate to ensure environmental values are not compromised,” he said.

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