What comes to mind when you think of the forestry sector? An incredibly multifaceted industry, the products we get from forestry are well beyond what I could count on my two hands. Books, housing, equipment and so much more come from the sector, and a lot of the time we never actually think about where these products come from, how they're harvested, and how sustainable the practice (in Canada, at least) is.
Forests are a crucial ecosystem, fundamental for the wellbeing of the environment, being a natural habitat for countless species, and being some of the largest carbon sinks in the world. In the face of climate change, carbon capture and sustainability efforts have been growing and growing, in many areas and in many different ways.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Seth Kursman at Resolute Forest Products, a Canadian company that prides itself on its sustainability, efficiency, and environmental stewardship. I hope this interview can provide a little insight and intriguing education into forestry, and the environmental practices like biofuels, regenerative cyclical design, carbon capture and more, within it!
Q&A: Seth Kursman at Resolute Forest Products
Tatiana: Thank you so much for joining me today! Seth, you’re the vice president of Corporate Communications, Sustainability and Government Affairs at Resolute Forest Products, a global leader in sustainable forest management and resource production. You seem to be very passionate about ensuring the longevity and wellbeing of the forests and its ecosystems, as well as delivering high-quality and essential products to over 50 countries. How did you get into the forestry industry, and what drove you to want to work in this field?
Seth: Me personally? Oh! Okay, no one ever asks what I think of something personally (laughs). Thank you. I graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. I was a political junkie all my life and I went on to law school, and eventually I decided this isn't my path, I’ve got to do something else. And so I got involved in a roundabout way, because the company was working on a political issue and needed someone to do some speech writing and gopher work.
I started out in Stanford, Connecticut and had an opportunity to work in Maine at a paper mill. I then went to Quinnesec, Michigan, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and worked at a pulp and paper mill followed by a paper mill in Ohio. I also worked in Washington, D.C., leading our federal government affairs effort, led state and regional public affairs for the company in the United States at one time. I then had an opportunity to come up to Montreal and really create a function. At the time, it was communications and government affairs and integrated functions, and then over time, I managed the environment function. I've always had the communications and government affairs, but they've always kind of substituted in something else. And now for quite a number of years, I've had sustainability.
The company has presented me with incredible opportunities to grow and prosper. I've been with the organization for over 30 years, which is unusual nowadays. I continue to learn and grow and develop personally and professionally. In addition to that, I do care passionately about sustainability issues. And I believe in the natural resources sector.
There is not an industry that is greener than the forest products industry. The industry itself is one that is renewable, sustainable and seeks resource maximization and waste minimization. And it does it through integration and innovation. We play a huge role in fighting climate change. So, there's lots of opportunities to contribute to the world around me by working for Resolute and working in the forest products industry.
Tatiana: Tell me a little bit about the organization, what your company produces, and how that has changed over time? Are there any forest products that you’ve seen go up or down in demand throughout the years? If so, what do you think that says about the changing needs of society and the direction we are collectively going?
Seth: Very good question. The forest products industry is a tough, demanding industry. It's full of challenges. But I would say, likewise, it's full of opportunities. We as a company, as an industry, have certain segments that are mature markets and secular decline.
A good example for us is paper. Look at newsprint consumption. North American newsprint consumption is down better than 80 percent since the year 2000. And at one time, two decades ago, Resolute was the largest newsprint producer in the world. And we had a little bit of pulp and lumber production. We had no tissue production. And at that point we certainly weren't involved with things like biofuels, some of the more cutting edge, performance biofilaments, or the on-the-line innovation that we see today.
But it's different, it's changing. So it's been important for the company to find ways to continue to transform itself. And that transformation is still very much ongoing. Now, if you look at our lumber business, it's much bigger. Our pulp business is much bigger. And yes, pulp goes into paper, but pulp also goes into tissue, absorbent products, diapers, hygiene, medical supplies, filters... there's a range of products that pulp is used in, some that you probably don't even realize. Both pulp and wood products are significantly different than a decade or two ago.
So we have continued to transform, and it is incumbent upon us to continue that process. And you've got to do that if you want to have that strong economic pillar of that three-legged stool of environmental, social and economic, under sustainability. When you ask how we adjust to changes, if you don't change, you're going to cease to be relevant. People think of high tech, of agile companies, they think of the Apples and the Microsofts - well, the forest products industry is actually very innovative. It's very high tech. And it is, at least for Resolute, very agile. And I believe that underpins a great deal of our success.
Tatiana: Talking about success, since the year 2000, Resolute has reduced their GHG emissions by 83.4%, and I see that you also have a 2025 target reduction goal of reducing by 30% over 2015 levels. You’ve also committed to the UN’s sustainable development goals, transitioned to using less carbon-intensive fuels to power your operations, and gone 100% coal-free on-site. How important is it to be cognizant of atmospheric GHG levels, and has it been difficult to decrease these emissions?
Seth: The skeptic has said it's because we’ve closed lots of mills, so it's no surprise - when you close lots of paper mills, your absolute emissions are going to go down. What's interesting is, closures only represent about one third of what we've achieved. Two-thirds of the achievement is on an intensity basis. So it's still operating facilities.
So how has that been achieved? Yes, when you go 100% coal free on-site, I think we've been there since 2014, that's going to be a big contributor. Conservation measures make a big difference, but the single biggest contributor is fuel switching. When we were able to increase biomass and increase hydro and other sources, and reduce our reliance on fossil fuel based materials, that's how we received our very significant reduction since 2000.
Part of it is because of what we've done ourselves on site. Part of it is because of the greening of the grid. In places like Quebec, so much of it is hydro-based and in Ontario, nuclear based. But even in the US, you have increasing greening of the grid with various projects. And so that's been a big piece of it and our climate achievements have received a great deal of international acclaim.
Tatiana: Wow, that's amazing. That actually ties in perfectly to my next topic - I know that the process of making paper is also very water intensive, but you have managed to return 97% of the water you use back into the environment, which is incredible.
Seth: And the other 3%, of course, there is inevitably going to be some evaporation, but some of it is in the product. You don't realize it, but when you hold a piece of paper in your hand, it has water in it.
Tatiana: And in terms of resources, the ability to renew and put what we use back into the natural cycle, as opposed to a use-and-discard approach, is one of the best things we can do!
Seth: Especially in our industry. And that's when you talk about how green the industry is. In the boreal forest where we operate in Ontario and Quebec, a tree, after about 100 years, begins to decay and die - you don't generally have trees that are hundreds and hundreds of years old here. It's on average about 100 years, and then they succumb to fire, disease or insects.
So you have some activist groups that paint a very inaccurate picture of what goes on in terms of forestry. People don't realize that less than half of 1%, something like 2 or 3 tenths of 1% of the Canadian forest, is actually harvested. And companies are asked to regenerate one hundred percent of it. Now some of that area is naturally regenerated, but in a number of other areas you plant seedlings or you do aerial seeding, it really depends on the area, and you grow the forest back.
So we can take you into an area that some of these activist groups take pictures of, thirty thousand feet up, and you see, yes, it's a clear cut, but it looks like there's nothing there. You land a helicopter in that same area that had been clear cut, and you'll see the big trees are gone, but there's an enormous amount of vegetation that's under your feet and that is already popping back up to another area. Five, 10, 15, 25 years later, you see that a healthy, thriving forest is back.
So it very much has a crop rotation. And the interesting thing is, and this is right from the state of Canada forest report, if you look at the amount of forest that is impacted by fires, disease and insect infestation, it is more than 25 times annually, the amount that is harvested, no one talks about that.
We're an important engine of the North American economy, and what's good for the environment and what's good on the socioeconomic side, are not mutually exclusive ideals. That's an old paradigm that certain groups like to paint. But it's not accurate. There may be some bad actors out there. We're not one of them.
We as a company have taken a very principled approach to that, and we defend not only our actions, but we're going to defend the communities who are adversely affected, and the First Nations and other indigenous peoples who have thousands of businesses that are linked to the forest products sector. We're going to defend them and their interests. We're inextricably linked with them. And to do anything less, to us, would be irresponsible.
Tatiana: 100%. And I totally agree on that, how that paradigm is just not mutually exclusive at all. I was born and raised in Calgary, but I came to Ottawa for university, so I've seen two completely opposite approaches and worldviews. And so it's always been something that I’m really passionate about, that it doesn't have to be one or the other, it can be both.
Seth: Yes. This is not a binary choice. What's good for the environment and for business can be in tandem. You look at the work that we've done in greenhouse gas emissions, the work we've done in forestry, we're world-class leaders in terms of safety, a safe workforce. There's also an economic impact of being a safe workplace and being an environmental supplier of choice, doing the right thing and then being more attractive than a competitor or a competitor's product, because you've positioned yourself as an environmental supplier of choice.
When you're able to do the very most with what you have, you're able to extract the most value from the raw materials you use. That's good for the environment because it reduces waste, and from an economic perspective, you're extracting the most value that you can. When you cut down a tree 50 years ago, there were parts of it that would go to waste. Today, virtually none of it goes to waste. It's all used! And that's because we've constantly raised the bar.
And as individual companies raise the bar, the industry as a whole continues to perform better, because everyone is competing against each other. Competition is a good thing, right?
Tatiana: Exactly! Now, I'm curious about bioenergy and biomass, how does Resolute approach that and how does that work? Do you think it has the potential to replace a lot of our future energy needs?
Seth: Biomass is used extensively in our operations. 74% of our mill residues are diverted from the landfill for beneficial use, recycling or energy. So beneficial use can be like using it on nutrients and farmlands or mine reclamation, recycling, to make products, or burning it for energy. There's no reason that you should waste any of the tree. In fact, we even take the sawdust that's created at our sawmills and we make pellets out of the saw dust.
We do that in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and we sell it to the Generating Station, which is owned by the province of Ontario. It used to be a coal facility and they converted a number of years ago to biomass. We supply a full 50% of the wood pellets that they use at that facility, all made from sawdust. And so we're incredibly, incredibly efficient. Biomass plays a very, very important role. The burning of biomass and production of energy is at the very heart of our operations.
Tatiana: That's incredible! I want to talk a little bit about carbon sequestration. We know that forests play a huge role in carbon sequestration, having the potential to be some of the largest carbon sinks in the world. How does resolute work to maintain the forests’ status as a carbon sink rather than a carbon source, all the while harvesting for products like lumber, paper products and more?
Seth: In the boreal forest and in the southeast US , that answer is pretty easy for us, because you have that cycle. So you're replanting and you're harvesting old trees. When they decay, they not only produce carbon, but they'll emit methane, which is a far more destructive greenhouse gas. And if it burns, when you have these out of control forest fires that we've seen over the years out in western Canada and western US, that's emitting an immense amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Whereas, if you're cutting the trees, harvesting and replanting the trees, young trees actually take in carbon and release oxygen.
So maintaining healthy, growing, sustainable forests is an absolutely critical element in our overall efforts to reduce the impact of climate change. And even the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that one of the best ways to impact or mitigate carbon emissions is through sustainable forestry. And remember also that when you're building or manufacturing wood products and you're building homes or different things, even books that go into libraries, that's all carbon that's sequestered. In furniture made out of wood, that's sequestered carbon.
From an environmental standpoint, there are obviously competitive building materials, but wood products, you're seeing a real increase in interest, even in taller buildings made of wood, because from an environmental perspective, they are much more advantageous than competitive materials.
Tatiana: That’s so true, and it’s crazy, we never think about just how many things have stored carbon in them! And in terms of the renewability and wellbeing of our forests, one of the oldest and most crucial ecosystems we have, biodiversity, soil health, and plant and animal habitat health are only some of the many factors that keep these living and breathing systems not only functioning, but thriving. On your website it states that biodiversity conservation and monitoring are priorities for your company. What would you say, or how would you explain, to those who worry about the environment and over-producing natural resources, in regards to if and how forestry can be done, while still being environmentally harmonious with nature? Is there a limit to what can and should be harvested? And how is that understood and managed?
Seth: I'll sum it up really easily. The strongest environmentalists I've ever met in my life are foresters. Plain and simple. When you build a pulp and paper mill, when you build sawmills, you're not doing it because you plan on harvesting material for 5 or 10 years and then leaving. You're making an investment that's going to last for generations. I really believe we are renewable and sustainable.
When we get an A- from CDP and that's the highest score they gave any North American-based company for their forestry practices, and we're at the management level for both climate change and water assessment, that's telling you something. And like I said, something like 2 or 3 tenths of 1% of the Canadian forest is actually harvested, which is then either naturally regenerated, or you plant seedlings or do aerial seeding. And there are obviously changes in climate, people can argue about what the causes are. But I think it's everyone's responsibility to operate your assets to the best of your ability and to make the most of what you have.
You should constantly be raising the bar, constantly trying to reduce your air emissions, your land emissions, constantly looking for ways to make the most of what you have. And so I think everyone has that responsibility. We have that responsibility at home when we recycle or we separate materials, companies certainly have that responsibility to their shareholders, to their employees, to their communities in which they operate. And so we take that responsibility very seriously.
Tatiana: Thank you! Now, Forest and resource management cannot be discussed or done without meaningful collaboration with Indigenous peoples. How does your company work with first nations to equitably and justly gain trust, camaraderie and teamwork within the forestry industry and field?
Seth: We are 100% forest management certified, so any areas, like in Quebec and Ontario, we're actually doing the harvesting. In Canada, 94% of the forest bases are owned by the crown, but we have 100% forest management certification. And so if you're going to maintain that certification, a prerequisite is that you're working in a collaborative way with indigenous peoples. We employ Indigenous peoples, we partner with them in terms of their businesses, their contractors, out in the forests, their contractors and our wood yards.
There are Indigenous people who have sawmills, like I mentioned, the one that we're a partner with, another that we own that's on the land of the Fort William First Nation. So there's a range of ways, whether it be a consultative relationship that you have to have aligned with your forest certification to do your harvesting, or literally business partnerships where there's economic value for them in their own business or being part of our business.
So for us, especially when you're looking at northern communities in Canada, Indigenous partnerships are an enormous asset for the company. And it's a very important pool of people to attract to the industry.
Tatiana: Right now, there’s a lot of polarity and mixed opinions about resources, energy and so many other topics that affect us on a national and global scale. Why should Canadians care about forestry? How is it fundamental and essential to our quality of life?
Seth: Look at Resolute: We're providing indispensable products for basic human necessities like shelter, nourishment and education, and we contribute to the health and welfare of our society. And so our fundamental goal is to generate value for the company and our shareholders while doing it.
We are driving socio-economic activity in a sustainable and responsible way. And so our success supports community economic growth and prosperity, supports social well-being and advancement, and I would say a shared environmental benefit.
About the Author
Tatiana Pratt is an environmental studies student completing her final year at Carleton University. She works with Canada Action and Students for Canada as an eco-blogger, and is also chair of the new climate committee for SFC. Tatiana desires to help create a balance in the conversations surrounding climate change and natural resources, and values equal distribution of care for each crucial pillar - people, planet and prosperity. Tatiana hopes her work with Canada Action and Students for Canada helps bridge the divide between Canadian students and citizens, to meet in the middle and create positive solutions for Canada's future.
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