In late March, a loosely affiliated coalition of southerners gathered outside of the British Consulate in Atlanta, Georgia with an unusual concern: wood pellets. The group, primarily made up of outdoors enthusiasts and conservationists, had traveled from multiple states to British Consul General Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford's doorstep. Chief on their minds was the rapidly increasing use of the pellets, a form of woody biomass harvested from forests throughout the southeastern U.S. and burned for renewable electricity in Europe. According to the group, what started as a minor section of Europe's renewable energy law has now burgeoned into a major climate and environmental headache.
"We were trying to elevate the profile of what exactly is going on on the ground here in the U.S.," Shelby White, who helped organize the event, told ThinkProgress. "And also how it conflicts with the intentions of the policies that are driving the massive explosion of the industry."
White said that the surge in demand fueled by Europe has caused "the clearcutting of wetlands and bottomlands on a massive scale," and that Georgia now finds itself in the crosshairs of the industry.
The expansive forests of the Carolinas, Georgia, and other nearby states have survived many human threats over the last few centuries, but the latest is one of the most unexpected. The rapid growth of Europe's biomass industry, driven by the region's renewable energy targets, is chipping away at southeastern forests. Enviva, the world's largest supplier of these wood pellets, currently owns and operates six manufacturing facilities in the Southeast. In filing for a $100 million initial public offering (IPO) in October, the company states that demand for utility-grade wood pellets is expected to grow 21 percent annually from 2013 to 2020. The growth is being fueled by the conversion of coal-fired power plants to biomass-fired plants in Northern Europe and, increasingly, in South Korea and Japan, according to the company.
The next few years will go far in determining the future of the wood pellet industry. Europe will be revising its renewable energy standard for the post-2020 term and the U.S. will also make a determination on the merits of biomass — a decision that could come as early as this summer. Not only is there local and regional concern regarding the longevity of valuable forests, there is also evidence showing that woody biomass is actually an overall contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, at least when viewed on a 20 or 30 year timescale. According to many scientists, that is all the time we have to start dramatically reducing emissions in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
U.S. wood pellet exports doubled in 2013 in response to growing European demand.
CREDIT: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Adam Macon, campaign director for Dogwood Alliance, a North Carolina forest preservation group, told ThinkProgress that "there was a general misunderstanding" when Europe included wood pellet biomass in their 2020 renewable energy target. The misunderstanding being that the industry would rely on scraps or waste left over from other manufacturing processes.
Macon said that what has happened instead is that "utilities really like burning stuff" and they are now burning whole trees and large, coarse woody residues, like tree tops. This is harming both local forests and setting back climate targets in the short term.
In order for wood pellets to burn "carbon free" the carbon emitted into the atmosphere must be recaptured by regenerated forests, which take several decades to grow. If these emissions aren't offset, then burning wood pellets releases as much or more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal. A 2013 study published in Environmental Research Letters broke down the biomass lifecycle according to GHG emissions. It found that while the actual pellet production accounts for nearly half of the emissions, shipping the pellets across the Atlantic Ocean is a close second, making up around 31 percent of the total GHG footprint of the process. The actual burning of the pellets accounted for about 10 percent of the overall emissions.
Renewable forms of energy represent about a quarter of the E.U.'s total electricity generation, with biomass making up around three-fourths of that, according to the European Biomass Association. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of pellets being shipped from North America to Europe doubled to 4.7 million tons, with southern forests making up about two-thirds of the total volume. As the Audubon Society recently reported, a new Enviva Biomass pellet plant in North Carolina fills a truck with wood pellets bound for Europe about every half-hour.
According to an analysis by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), as of February, there were nearly two dozen proposed woody biomass facilities across the Southeast, including in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Currently there are seven in operation.
As part of a 2013 study, SELC found that over half of the sourcing area for Enviva's Ahoskie, North Carolina plant — some 168,000 acres — falls within forested wetlands, and that this poses high risks to wildlife and biodiversity, especially birds. In Georgia alone, the study determined that around 100,000 acres of native forests could be at high risk of being converted into plantation pine for the pellet industry. Much of this at-risk area is currently covered in longleaf pine and other upland pine forest ecosystems and is home to skunks, weasels, frogs, snakes, birds and other animals that may not prove adaptable to the proposed changes.
"Despite claims to the contrary, Enviva is sourcing whole trees from forested wetlands to serve its Ahoskie, NC," said David Carr, general counsel for SELC.
Wood is the oldest source of renewable fuel, used since humans started making fires some 800,000 years ago, and it is still widely in use — some one million American households currently use wood pellets for heating. The Southeast has one of the most developed forest industries in the world, and this infrastructure is a big part of what makes it so appealing as a biomass source. Another major appeal: private landowners control 86 percent of forests in the Southeast, compared to 56 percent of all U.S. forests, according to the U.S. Industrial Wood Pellet Association.
A truck headed to Enviva's flagship wood pellet production facility in Ahoskie, N.C., as photographed by the Dogwood Alliance in July 2014 during their investigation into the industry's practices.
CREDIT: Dogwood Alliance
"This is the Wild West of logging," said Macon. "There is an extreme lack of regulation on private land in the South so companies are not required to replant or to notify authorities of their plans. The forests in Europe are very protected."
In February, several dozen scientists sent a letter to Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), warning her that the use of woody biomass for energy doesn't reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it actually increases them.
"Burning biomass instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon emitted by power plants. In fact, as EPA itself acknowledges, burning biomass degrades facility efficiency and increases day-to-day emissions over emissions when fossil fuels are burned alone," the letter stated.
The scientists said that treating all woody or agricultural feedstocks as "carbon-free" as long as they are derived "from sustainable forest or agricultural practices" could have major negative implications. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, treating woody biomass as carbon-free with modest carbon restrictions would require an increase of wood equivalent to 70 percent of the U.S. timber harvest by 2035, an amount that would account for about four percent of U.S. electricity. The International Energy Agency estimates that treating bioenergy as carbon-free globally, combined with strong carbon policies, would lead to a reliance on woody biomass for six percent of global electricity by 2035 — requiring a more than doubling of the global commercial timber harvest.
Timothy D. Searchinger, a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University who signed onto the letter to the EPA letter, told ThinkProgress that the whole industry is being driven by bad government policy that all started with a mistake.
"I have actually talked to people in the E.U. community and they admit it was a mistake," said Searchinger, who has researched biofuel policy for years.
Stacks of trees at Enviva's Ahoskie facility as photographed by the Dogwood Alliance in September 2013 during their investigation into the industry's practices.
CREDIT: Dogwood Alliance
"The industry is saying they don't use whole trees, just residues," said Searchinger. "So we say, 'fine, why are we having this debate then?' The answer is they're not using residues — you can see pictures of them using huge logs." Searchinger said now that the wheels are in motion, the combination of European renewable policies relying on the biomass contributions and growing vested interests in the U.S. make it very hard to stop the expansion of the industry.
"If we don't fix it now it will never get fixed," he said. "People are still only making modest amounts of money. If the U.S. gets the rule wrong, we'll open it up for every country in the world to go cut down trees and say it's better for the climate."
Instead of being a forward-looking practice, Searchinger sees the wood pellet industry as a call back to long-abandoned industries.
"What brought back the forests of Europe was coal," said Searchinger. "England was basically deforested by 1850; they got into coal because they didn't have any trees left. The idea that we can go back to trees, that's not knowing history and therefore repeating it."
Today England is absorbing far more trees than it can naturally accommodate: In 2013 the U.K. imported more wood pellets from the U.S. than the rest of the European Union combined, 1.5 million metric tons. This amount could easily double or triple in the near future if utilities like Drax continue converting coal-fired power plants to biomass facilities, a process they much prefer to shuttering the plants entirely.
Instead of emulating the many European countries rapidly pursuing solar or wind power, the U.K. is relying significantly on burning wood to meet the E.U.-mandated goal of getting 20 percent of energy production from renewables by 2020.
Tim Portz, executive editor of North Dakota-based Biomass Magazine, a monthly trade publication, said that in the U.K. "it's all about" Drax's conversion of coal-fired power plants to wood pellet facilities. Portz, who has been covering the wood pellet industry for about five years, said Drax plans to convert approximately half of its 3,900 megawatt fleet to wood pellet inputs, which would require around seven million metric tons of pellets per year.
"What does that look like? Seven million metric tons would take all of the pellets from 14 half-million ton-per-year facilities, and that's a very large pellet plant," Portz said. He added that no one even considered making plants that big before pellets started being used for power production.
"If I invested in wood pellets 10 years ago, I'd be thinking about pellets for stoves, which sell in 40 pound bags at Home Depot or Lowes," he said. Plants for this type of production are about 10 times smaller than those being built for utility-scale electricity generation.
Portz said the narrative that this industry is going to cause mass deforestation just isn't true because pellets aren't worth that much. According to him, lands managed to be forest products are designed to get the highest value wood fiber possible — tall, straight trees that are a couple feet in diameter at chest height and can be converted to lumber, i.e. 2x4s. Portz said that the whole trees used in biomass pellet processing likely come from the thinning of these loblolly pine plantations, on which they can fit 600 trees on a single acre, in order to get rid of imperfect trees.
Portz hasn't seen any kind of an appetite for a U.S. policy that would emulate Europe's in using wood pellets to replace coal and meet climate goals. He said the biomass industry is seen as a sort of "red-headed stepchild" in the energy world: climate change deniers don't see the point of subsidizing the fuel and environmentalists are concerned for forest health and longevity.
A Drax biomass storage dome as part of a coal-fired power plant conversion to wood pellet fuel in the U.K.
CREDIT: flickr/Department of Energy and Climate Change
"Environmentalists think you are wrong to cut down all the trees and the other side thinks you're crazy — they don't see the problem with coal power in the first place," said Portz. Regardless, industry insiders project that demand could rise to as much as 50 million metric tons a year as Canada, South America, Southeast Asia and even Russia, with some of the largest forests assets in the world, consider woody biomass as a fuel option.
The early stages of the industry's expansion are on display in Canada, where a pellet production plant meant to export nearly one million tons of product to South Korea is under development in British Columbia. According to a recent report from Global Forest Watch, Canada and Russia have become leaders in deforestation, overtaking more tropical countries like Brazil. The study found that Russia and Canada combined to make up about one-third of global tree cover loss between 2011 and 2013, averaging a combined 26,000 square miles each year. These Boreal forests act as major carbon sinks, keeping vast carbon reserves out of the atmosphere, and this loss, primarily attributable to forest fires, is a disconcerting trend for GHG emissions.
With climate change already contributing to the frequency and intensity of forest fires and associated loss of forest, the addition of a profitable, extensive, and poorly overseen biomass industry could push the forests further into disrepair. Both Portz and Jessica Brooks, deputy director of the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA), a group promoting the use of woody biomass, emphasized the importance of uniform market regulations and strong sustainability criteria in the future success of the industry.
Portz pointed to the Netherlands as a model of sustainable forestry, saying that the U.S. doesn't come close to having the same requirements. Those in the biomass industry, including the USIPA, argue that the Netherlands' strong sustainability criteria are hampering the potential of the industry to provide pellets to the country.
Brooks, who told ThinkProgress that "sustainability is the backbone of the industrial wood pellet industry in the U.S." said wood pellets are important for another reason: they are the only renewable energy source to supply baseload fuel. Unlike solar and wind power, biomass isn't intermittent and doesn't rely on advances in energy storage in order to provide a reliably dispatchable generation source at any time of day.
She also reiterated Portz's argument that wood pellets are very "low on the value chain" and that the industry does not drive new harvest but "makes an efficient use of low-grade fiber." She also emphasized that the industry is providing jobs and economic development for rural regions that have seen a recent decline in forest products due to the weakening of the pulp and paper industry and the overall recession.
Enviva's Ahoskie facility as photographed by the Dogwood Alliance in December 2014 during their investigation into the industry's practices.
CREDIT: Dogwood Alliance
Not all locals are convinced of the benefits of the industry's growth, however. Residents living near the Port of Wilmington in North Carolina are worried that the construction of two 150-foot-tall domes to store pellets before they are shipped overseas will usher in a number of problems.
"According to Google Maps, I'm 2,932 feet from the base of these domes," J.T. Cobelt, who has lived in the area for 23 years, told a local news outlet in March. "There would be the safety issue, traffic issue, potential for noise. They'll be hundreds of feet of conveyor running these pellets. Conveyors are particularly noisy."
In December, Dogwood Alliance, the Natural Resource Defense Council, BirdLife Europe and a handful of other groups sent a petition signed by some 50,000 Americans to European leaders urging them to stop subsidizing biomass and focus on other renewables like wind and solar. They call the initiative Save our Southern forests, or SOS.
Both White and Macon have recently traveled to Europe to try to convey the local and regional challenges being felt back home by the rise of the industry. Macon said that he came away from his meeting with the British Consul in Atlanta in March feeling that Pilmore-Bedford had been unaware of the severity of the situation.
"He was genuinely surprised to hear that this devastation was being caused," he said. "I don't think policymakers were able to see in advance that this would drive the entire destruction of Southeastern forests for wood pellets."
This genuine surprise seems to apply to everyone now grappling with the expansion of an industry with no precedent at this scale.