Standard Biocarbon Corp. is leasing part of the former Great Northern Paper mill in East Millinocket to make 'biochar," a biocarbon product used in agriculture products like compost and for environmental cleanup. It's one a number of companies proposing to use Maine wood to create environmentally products. Credit: Courtesy of Standard Biocarbon Corp.

A handful of companies are proposing to repurpose former Maine paper mills into refineries that create environmentally friendly fuels and fertilizer from wood, raising hopes that they could generate economic activity in areas tied to the state’s traditional forest economy.

Ensyn Fuels Inc. applied for a state license this week to open a biorefinery at the site of the former Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket. The Ottawa firm would use thermal technology to convert biomass, like wood chips, into renewable heating oil.

Standard Biocarbon, a Portland firm, signed a lease with East Millinocket last year to also open a biorefinery at the former mill site to produce a sustainable fertilizer alternative called biochar. The company also announced plans last week to produce biochar at the Pleasant River Lumber mill in Enfield, spokesperson Kelley Attenborough said.

And Biofine Developments Northeast Inc. announced last summer that it had reached an agreement with the town of Lincoln to open a biofuels refinery on the site of the former Lincoln Paper and Tissue mill. The company produces ethyl levulinate, a heating oil substitute.

The proposals offer some hope for communities that lost hundreds of jobs when their mills closed and for loggers who lost customers for their waste wood. But the companies behind the projects and those working with them are cautious about making promises that these ideas will pan out and revitalize their communities, after so many past promises of economic revitalization never came to fruition.

Ensyn chose the East Millinocket mill because of Maine’s “regulatory-friendly environment” and its proximity to the company’s customer base in the Northeast, president Lee Torrens said.

Still, Torrens said he was “very cautious” about making any promises about the impact Ensyn might have on the local economy, citing previous proposals that promised to revitalize the Katahdin area and didn’t pan out.

“Maine is just riddled with people who promised the moon and didn’t deliver,” he said.

That applies to Lincoln, Town Manager Rick Bronson said.

BDNE and Lincoln are negotiating a joint development agreement, and the town is applying for federal grants to clean up the mill site, Bronson said. Economic development director Jay Hardy said BDNE hoped to open its refinery by the end of 2023.

Still, Bronson said that he was wary of making definitive statements about when the former mill would be up and running.

LignaTerra Global, a North Carolina-based cross-laminated timber manufacturer, announced plans in 2019 to open a factory there but has yet to break ground.

“They announced that on a Friday,” Bronson said. “The following Monday, I got a call from a citizen [asking], where does he go to apply for a job?”

A LignaTerra spokesperson said the rising cost of machinery parts and supply chain challenges have “generated a rethink on a few pieces of the [company’s] overall strategy,” but did not respond to a follow-up question asking what that meant for its plans in Lincoln.

James Beaupre, the director of industrial cooperation at the University of Maine, said Maine still has a “vibrant timber and lumber industry,” and that bio refineries could allow Maine to diversify its forest economy and guarantee more uses for waste wood.

Refineries provide opportunities to use all kinds of waste wood, like wood chips and sawdust, that can’t be used for lumber, Beaupre said.

Standard Biocarbon, the company that plans to open bio refineries in Enfield and East Millinocket, produces biochar by converting wood chips, through a process called pyrolysis, into a kind of charcoal that traps carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change.

Fred Horton, Standard Biocarbon’s chief executive, told the Bangor Daily News last August that the company planned to use 12,000 tons of wood chips sourced from nearby furniture and mulching companies to produce 3,000 tons of biochar a year. The operation would make it the biggest biochar producer on the East Coast.

Each company has its own operations and chemical processes for producing wood products, so it’s difficult to quantify how many jobs each plant would create, Beaupre said.

“Sometimes that can mean three jobs, sometimes that might need a couple of hundred jobs, based on the size of the equipment and the amount of [raw material] that you can bring in,” he said.

Dana Doran, the executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said that having more companies like Ensyn and Standard Biocarbon to use loggers’ wastewood would be beneficial for forest management.

Between 2012 and 2016, Maine lost six mills in Millinocket, East Millinocket, Lincoln, Bucksport, Madison and, temporarily, Old Town. All of them accepted loggers’ waste wood, Doran said.

Losing those six mills meant that fewer trees were harvested, leading to forests’ deteriorating health, he said.

Refineries would provide new sources for loggers to offload their waste wood, though their intake would be nowhere near what paper mills took in. He mentioned Ensyn’s application, which said it would take in 165,000 tons of wood a year if its East Millinocket operation was approved.  

“In the grand scheme of things, we’re not even talking about a half a million tons of wood between the three or four projects that are kind of on the drawing board,” Doran said.

“That’s less than 10 percent of the wood we’ve lost over the last decade,” he said. “It’s not a lot of wood, but it’s important, because it’s something, and it’s beneficial to not only the contractors for market, but it’s also beneficial to the forest.”


Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.