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Doublespeak with a devastating impact – proposal to destroy and burn forest bad for nature and the climate

MEDIA RELEASE
18
th March 2024  

The proposal to burn native forests to produce electricity has again reared its ugly head, this time seeking to capitalise on NSW’s 'do what you want’ approach to habitat clearing.  

Verdant Earth is seeking to secure 850,000 tonnes of wood per year from forests and bush in the Hunter region, in order to restart Redbank Power Station as a biomass generator (the burning of wood and other organic matter for fuel).  

The company has been making misleading claims to the media about the proposal, which if approved will lead to large scale habitat loss across the Hunter region.  

The Environmental Impact Statement for the project, currently available for public exhibition, also contains a range of deceptive and misleading claims, in particular that the proposal would “help decarbonise the electricity system” and “be ecologically sustainable”. 

The Nature Conversation Council of NSW, the state’s leading environmental advocacy organisation, vehemently refutes both claims, and is calling on the NSW Labor Government to deliver on their election commitment and disallow the burning of native vegetation for electricity.   

"It's extremely concerning that this polluting project is again rearing its head, and has progressed to the public exhibition stage” NCC CEO Jacqui Mumford said today.  

"It took a dedicated community campaign to stop them trying to use native forest timber, despite the clear health, environmental and climate impacts. Now they're back with a new plan to burn native forest by taking advantage of widely criticised land clearing rules. 

“They seem to have decided that calling the wood “invasive native species” makes it more appealing to the public. As always with this company, what they are saying simply doesn’t stack up.  

“There are barely any “invasive native species" in the greater Sydney, Hunter & Coastal regions, certainty not enough to run a power plant.  

“Instead, the substance of this proposal is to burn native forests, bush, grasses and regenerated paddocks that landholders wish to clear and have deemed “invasive” without oversight.  

"NSW Labor has had a longstanding commitment to close the National Party’s loophole that allows burning of native vegetation for electricity. So far, they have not acted upon this commitment.  

“We urge the government to close this loophole, deliver on their commitment and provide certainty for industry and our forests”. 

Statements attributable to Jacqui Mumford, NCC CEO. 

On Carbon Emissions.  

 Verdant incorrectly claims that because trees sequester carbon when they grow, burning them is ‘net zero’, however: 

  • Burning green wood chips emits 50% more CO2 per megawatt hour of energy produced than burning coal. See further research here 

  • The proposal is to use biomass from land that has been cleared, not in forests that are going to regrow.  

  • Even if the forests did regrow, logged forests store far less carbon than old growth forests, and they can take hundreds of years to sequester the carbon the logged trees stored. 

"Verdant Earth been trying claim that woodfire power is "green” or "net zero” since they purchased the mothballed Redbank coalfired power station.     

"How many times are we going to have to show that Biomass (the burning of wood for fuel) is not a net zero energy source.  

“It generates more emissions per megawatt hour of energy than coal, dives habitat clearing and deforestation, and undermines investment in genuinely clear energy technology.  

"If Verdant energy really wants to provide clean energy they should invest in proven technologies like wind and solar, rather than trying to burn wood and claim it's carbon negative."  

On the ecological impact.  

Verdant energy is seeking to exploit a loophole introduced by the former government that allows landholders to self-assess the ecological value of a piece of land, and then clear it with little to no oversight (see below). The NSW government is currently reviewing these laws. 

“Since these changes were introduced in 2016, habitat clearing rates on freehold land have tripled, with an area 4x the size of Newcastle lost each year.  

“Habitat clearing on freehold land is now the biggest cause of environmental loss in NSW, with 50 million trees and almost 100,000 hectares lost each year.   

It has labelled “the main threats to the survival of species" in the most recent NSW State of the Environment Report  

“This proposal will incentivise the clearing of even more habitat in the hunter region, further devastating fragmented and at-risk forest ecosystems”.  

The amount of biomass needed to power a power plant is massive – 850 000 tonnes is more woodchips that the entire native forest logging industry produced in NSW.  

The negative impacts on nature will be massive, with thousands of hectares of native forests and bush being cleared. The proposal acknowledges that logging and chipping will occur across a 300 km radius of the facility.   

Statement ends 

Media notes and background:  

Exemptions under the Protection of the Environment Operations (General) Regulation 2021 

*** Clauses in the Protection of the Environment Operations (General) Regulation 2021 prohibit the use of native forest biomaterials in electricity generation, but exempt certain types of native vegetation or woody waste from the definition of native forest biomaterials. 

 This enables exempt materials to be burned for the purpose of electricity generation. These exempt materials include 

  • materials from various types of plantation forests 

  • sawdust or other sawmill waste 

  • waste arising from certain wood processing or manufacturing activities 

  • trees cleared in accordance with a land management (native vegetation) code under Division 5 of Part 5A of the Local Land Services Act 2013 and all relevant Codes and Regulations (see Local Land Services). 

Part 5A of the Local Land Services Act 2013 contains the self-assessment loopholes that has led habitat clearing triple since 2016.  

A 2019 review by the Audit Office of NSW concluded that the new laws may not be responding adequately to environmental risks whilst permitting landholders to improve agricultural activities and identified significant delays in compliance and enforcement activity to address unlawful clearing. 

Also in 2019, a review of the Framework by the Natural Resources Commission, but not publicly released until late March 2020, found that: 

  • Clearing rates have increased almost 13-fold from an annual average rate of 2,703ha a year under the old laws to 37,745ha under the new laws 

  • Biodiversity in 9 out of 11 regions is now at risk 

  • Unexplained clearing has increased, with the NRC concluding “compliance frameworks are inadequate and high rates of clearing pose a major risk” 

In August 2020, Environmental Defenders Office released its report Restoring the Balance in NSW native vegetation law - Solutions for healthy, resilient and productive landscapes. The report identifies 10 areas of regulatory failure and sets out a law reform pathway with 27 recommendations for reform.  

Finally, in 2023 Ken Henry pointed to a lack of regulatory oversight in agricultural land clearing and inconsistent biodiversity outcomes in the statutory review of the Biodiversity Conservation Act (2016), in which he found that NSW nature laws are failing. 

The NSW Labor Platform states: 

Labor recognises that burning timber and cleared vegetation for electricity is not carbon neutral and is neither clean or renewable energy, and therefore forms no part of a credible strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Labor will introduce legislation prohibiting the burning of any forests and cleared vegetation for electricity. 

Data from the Drax power station in the UK shows that biomass burning has increased particulate pollution by 400 percent since switching four of six boilers from coal to forest derived biomass, while power output has remained constant.  

Further research on biomass as being bad for community health here

Previous NCC submissions 

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