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How a Japanese Earthquake Shook BC’s Forest Future

And what needs to change to protect the environment and jobs.

Ben Parfitt 24 Apr 2024The Tyee

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. office.

In the land of the rising sun, the light of a setting sun glints so brightly on the shiny metal piping of Renova’s Ishinomaki Hibarino power plant that you have to shield your eyes.

Located north of the city of Sendai, the new thermal electricity plant is one of several in Japan that burns biomass to generate electricity, in this case enough to supply 17,000 homes.

Renova’s biomass comes in one of two forms: wood pellets made from felled trees, and palm kernel shells, the waste left over after processing palm oil.

On this day, the biomass being amassed for future burning is crushed palm kernel shells that likely originated in Indonesia or Malaysia and are being unloaded one giant bucketful at a time from the cavernous hold of the Coral Princess, an ocean freighter anchored nearby.

Every few minutes, a truck laden with the shells arrives at a yard alongside the Renova plant to dump its contents before turning around and returning to the docks for another load.

Similar scenes are playing out up and down Japan’s coast at thermal electricity plants that have sprung up with eye-popping speed following the sudden and profound energy crisis thrust upon the country on March 11, 2011.

An earthquake-induced energy crisis

That day, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded triggered a tsunami that devastated large swaths of Japan’s low-lying Pacific Coast, killing 20,000 people and destroying or badly damaging critical infrastructure including roads, bridges, rail lines, homes, businesses and power facilities, most notably nuclear reactors like those at Fukushima, also near Sendai.

A black and white photo shows headstones with carving; on top of each is a stylized carved bird. In the background are two giant round steel-grey structures.
A memorial to schoolchildren and others killed in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March 2011 stands steps from a new wood-pellet-burning thermal electricity plant in Sendai. Photo via Conservation North.

In the following days and weeks, the Japanese government not only closed those nuclear plants that were damaged during the epic quake, but temporarily shut down all nuclear power production in the country.

That momentous decision meant that close to one-third of the country’s power production was gone, spurring immediate energy conservation measures and soon an effort to rapidly ramp up thermal electricity production, both by burning more conventional fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas and by burning biomass.

To encourage more of the latter along with other “renewable” power such as solar, the country took a leaf out of the United Kingdom’s playbook and subsidized these new projects with generous feed-in tariffs that guaranteed a market.

Japan’s rapid development of its bioenergy industry comes, however, at considerable cost to those countries that are supplying it with the biomass to run the new network of plants, be it Borneo, whose tropical forests have been razed to make way for palm oil plantations, a death knell for orangutans and other endangered wildlife, or the primary and old-growth forests of central British Columbia where fewer and fewer caribou roam.

Late last year I received an invitation to travel and speak in Japan from three environmental organizations as a result of work I had done in my capacity as a policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the growth of the wood pellet industry in B.C.

A deepening supply crisis

I came away from that 10-day trip, which took me to Tokyo and Sendai, more convinced that the surge in wood pellet shipments to Japan and two other countries in particular — the United Kingdom and South Korea — is pushing B.C. deeper into a timber supply crisis that will have consequences both at home and abroad.

B.C.’s forests already show signs of being significantly overcut, a fact that is reflected in rapidly declining logging rates and rising mill closures. Add to that the humbling number of wildfires burning year in and year out in the province, with roughly 2.5 per cent of the provincial land base burned last year alone, and you have all the ingredients for a major timber supply crisis, a crisis that both the forest industry and the provincial government are aware of.

An aerial view of a highway running through a forest. Clouds of smoke rise and orange flames leap from treetops.
The Donnie Creek fire in 2023 burned massive tracts of forest. More wildfires burning will likely result in reduced timber supply. Photo via BC Wildfire Service.

Despite that supply crisis, wood pellet exports from Canada more than doubled in the 10 years ending in 2023, with exports from B.C. representing the majority of those shipments. And Japan accounted for much of that surge.

A review of export data compiled by Statistics Canada shows that in 2014 slightly under 62,000 tonnes of wood pellets were exported to Japan. By 2023, that figure had exploded to nearly 1.7 million tonnes, with all of those exports from B.C. Virtually all of those pellets had their origin in primary forests, those forests never before subject to industrial logging.

This surge in growth meant that at the end of last year, Japan had a 52 per cent share of all of Canada’s wood pellet exports and a 76 per cent share of exports from B.C. And the demand from Japan continues to rise.

The Drax factor

“The projection is Japan will be needing a million tonnes more by 2027,” says Roger Smith, Japan director for Mighty Earth. “This is the growth market, not the U.K. or Europe.”

The company responsible for producing and selling the lion’s share of Canadian-made wood pellets to Japan is Drax, the U.K.-based corporation that has been a magnet for critical coverage from climate scientists, the media and non-governmental organizations.

The company operates a massive thermal electricity plant in North Yorkshire, England, that burns approximately 6.5 million tonnes of wood pellets annually and, because of all that wood-burning, generates more than 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, making Drax’s power plant the single largest point source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United Kingdom.

Both the company and the U.K. government that heavily subsidizes Drax say, however, that those emissions don’t count because eventually all the CO2 released burning that wood is “offset” as newly planted trees sequester atmospheric carbon.

It’s an assertion that is dismissed by numerous scientists who argue that burning wood actually generates more CO2 emissions than burning coal and that the emissions associated with burning wood are not quickly or effectively countered by planting more trees.

Drax has also drawn critical coverage both at home and abroad for the impact that its operations have on forests in North America, including primary forests in Canada.

Old-growth trees fall to make pellets

In October 2022, BBC’s investigative news show Panorama aired a highly watched documentary based on fieldwork done in B.C. earlier that year. A documentary crew for CBC’s flagship investigative news show The Fifth Estate also did fieldwork in the province that summer, airing its own documentary the same week as its British counterpart.

Drax owns outright or is a partner in numerous mills in B.C. and Alberta that produce wood pellets, giving it control of roughly 80 per cent of the pellet production in both provinces.

Both the BBC and CBC raised significant challenges to Drax’s assertions that it uses primarily wood waste generated at sawmills to make its wood pellets, noting the large number of logs that are trucked to Drax facilities, where they are turned directly into the pellets that the company then exports to its U.K. plant and, in more recent years, to Japan and South Korea.

And those challenges continue.

This February, Joe Crowley reported for BBC Panorama that Drax is taking logs from old-growth forests in north-central B.C. that were clearcut by timber companies and delivering those logs directly to its pellet operations in the province. Crowley’s report noted one instance in which 130 truckloads of logs were delivered, including logs from an old-growth forest that had been identified as a candidate for logging deferrals because of its high ecological values.

A massive round concrete structure is partly cloaked in green scaffolding. Behind it, cranes tower over a large building under construction.
A plant under construction in Japan will soon join the many burning wood pellets to generate electricity. Photo via Conservation North.

Such reporting is not going unnoticed in Japan, where environmental organizations have used it effectively to push bioenergy producers and the companies financing them to reassess their wood procurement policies.

Shakeup coming from financial sector?

This month, Japan’s SMBC Financial Group, parent to SMBC, one of the country’s three largest banks, updated its sustainability policy to address the rising use of woody biomass in energy production.

The change in policy came as a direct result of environmental organizations challenging Japanese financiers over the high carbon emissions and harms to forests and biodiversity associated with Japan’s imports of biomass.

The updated policy will not support new biomass projects in the country that use fuel derived from primary forests. The new policy specifically defines allowable biomass as “wood that is not derived from virgin forests, including unused wood and sawmill residues, and that can be verified as not violating human rights of local residents.”

If such policies become more widespread, they could have significant consequences both for Japan, as it seeks to expand its bioenergy ambitions, and for Canada and B.C., whose primary forests continue to shrink in the face of skyrocketing demand.

Given rising concerns over the fate of primary forests both at home and abroad, it is long past due for the B.C. government to make fundamental reforms to forest policy.

A new road map

Here are six things that would help to increase confidence both in Japan and in B.C. that forests are not being cut down just so the trees can then be burned.

In the absence of such fundamental reforms, B.C. is likely to slip further into a deepening timber supply crisis that the government and forest industry both know is well underway. And Japan’s bioenergy producers will be left to turn somewhere else for their wood.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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