Environment minister: Estonia needs strategic stockpile of firewood | News

As environment minister, are you happy to see soaring firewood prices?

Heating is not in the administrative area of the environment minister.

But logging is?

Indeed. I am glad our forest owners are paid a fair price if they decide to cut down their forest and sell it for firewood. That said, there are better ways of attaching value to timber, such as construction materials or even logs for housebuilding. The timber fetches many times the price in those cases. Things are less rosy for those looking to buy firewood as costs have gone up, while the cost of energy has gone up on all fronts.

We have a lot of gray alder that ends up rotting away on tens of thousands of hectares. It is not valuable timber and sports a very short carbon capture period. Couldn’t the state subsidize alder logging and transport to boiler plants?

I do not think that gray alder is worthless. It can be used to smoke fish or meat or when building saunas. But I cannot speak to its profitability. You would need to ask forest owners that.

Why are we paying for Russian gas but allowing gray alder woods to rot away and release CO2 into the atmosphere?

I agree that alder needs to be brought out of the woods sooner. It grows very quickly and should sport a shorter cycle. I hope that landowners have noticed high firewood prices and can fetch a good price for their alder.

The oil shale industry has suggested Russian gas could easily be replaced with shale oil. What did you think of last week’s news that oil shale mining is about to be ramped up considerably?

It is a security matter where we are replacing imported fuel with what we can produce ourselves. A sensible step in the short perspective. However, in the long run, we need to look for ways of replacing shale oil with environmentally friendly and renewable fuels.

Therefore, you prefer woodchips as a renewable resource to turning oil shale into electricity?

Oil shale is not a renewable resource in our time frame. But mining has been dialed back in past years and I see nothing dramatic here. The mining permits are all from an earlier period. Eesti Energia has promised to become a carbon neutral enterprise by 2040, which line I believe it will follow.

We need to weather at least three harsh winters. If Russian gas is cut off in the summer and the LNG ship project fails, boosting the use of firewood in boiler plants is our only option?

Even now, 80 percent of Estonian dwellings use wood for heating. We are in a good situation as we are using a resource we have for heating. District heating uses relatively little gas and mostly as an additional fuel to cover peak consumption.

Risks are greater in industry and I hope they realize this. If they cannot replace it with biomethane, they will have to consider alternatives. Unlike in Central Europe, gas taps being turned off is not a major problem in Estonia. But those countries’ financial capacity is much greater; therefore, I hope we can do without buying oil, gas and coal from Russia.

Is Estonia prepared to export woodchips to Western Europe if necessary?

Of course. Should there be a surplus, we need to export and bring the money to Estonia. We can use it to boost Estonians’ prosperity.

At the same time, we need to make sure our people don’t end up in cold rooms. I have always wondered why our district heating providers do not have long-term agreements for buying woodchips. I would recommend it as it can guarantee deliveries. Timber wholesalers have long contracts with state forest manager RMK, with a part of timber procured from the free market so to speak. The open market’s contribution is not 100 percent, and long-term contracts yield a measure of certainty.

There could be strategic stockpiles of firewood, just as we have for oil products. It is something the Ministry of Economic Affairs should actively pursue as we have no such reserves today. Boiler plants do not have permanent contracts to ensure deliveries, with everything left up to the market. Last year showed it was not the best of approaches. I hope lessons have been learned.

How big should these stockpiles be?

I cannot say. Warehousing is the main problem as such quantities cannot be kept just anywhere, while I believe Estonia should have at least one heating season’s reserve somewhere. Ideally, two years, as timber cut in spring should be given time to dry.

Finland has already decided to slow the process of weaning itself off peat and is stockpiling several years’ worth. What are we waiting for?

District heating providers have not come to us to suggest it could be a way out.

What about the Luunja boiler plant near Tartu?

We have no end date for peat mining. We only have the long-germ goal. If the peat industry sees it as an opportunity and it would be a good way to heat the city of Tartu – why not.

The Finns are also preparing to boost felling volumes in light of disappearing Russian imports. The Riigikogu State Budget Control Select Committee discussed the complicated situation on Wednesday. Are you sticking to your position that logging volumes should not be hiked for industrial needs?

The logging volume debate is underway at the ministry and we have received all manner of proposals. Some want the entire timber industry shut down while others would double logging volumes. We are analyzing all options to find a sensible compromise.

The decision will also be affected by the fact that the bark beetle has come to our forests. Looking at beetle damage in spruce woods, damaged areas are far bigger than what was marked for felling. There will be changes in this regard.

We will also be looking at other species of trees. The sustainable forest management plan from last fall would allow for bigger logging volumes.

Therefore, we will be cutting more temporarily for a few years?

There are several aspects to consider. We also want to move closer to a more even age structure of woods in Estonia, which also requires heightened logging volumes in the coming years. And indeed, logging volume was cut by 13 percent in 2022 for purely political reasons, meaning there were no conservational or economic considerations. There is room for negotiation in that sense.

Therefore, the cut of 13 percent can be reversed because it was a political decision made by the previous minister?

It could happen should we manage to agree. We also need to look at the time frame. It’s nesting season now and the woods are quiet. If volumes change, they need to be covered with contracts. This means that actual logging work can start come fall.

Will there be a decision in the coming weeks?

It needs to happen before Midsummer Day, while I’m rather hoping we will have an accord in May. That said, I urge the timber sector and consumers to look at their habits and whether it would be possible to use alternative materials, use existing material in a more optimal way?

/…/

The older a forest becomes, the more likely a rare moss, mushroom, plant or animal species will be found that will render it worthless for the market. The €60-110 private owners of forests are paid, depending on the protection regime, is a pittance compared to the €10,000 payday following the final cutting of a hectare of mature forest.

First, we need a debate on whether all such forests should be turned into protected areas. Perhaps these natural values can be protected in other ways. Support rates could be revisited, while that requires another political agreement. Personally, I have nothing against paying people more in the way of compensation. /…/

The Land Board today governs around 50,000 hectares of forest land where no management is taking place. Why not sell these lands? The money could be used to buy protected land currently in private hands?

The ministry is trying to create a situation where forests are owned by RMK and farmland by the board. The process has begun and the situation where the Land Board is in charge of large patches of forest will not continue for long.

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