U.S. Becomes Largest Wood Pellet Exporter, Clearcutting Forests and Destroying Wetlands
When you think about burning wood to heat your home, you might imagine a cozy fireplace, not a giant power plant. Unfortunately, utility companies in Europe are making massive investments to convert their power plants to burn wood—known as “biomass”—as a replacement for coal and other fossil fuels.
This is despite the fact that recent research shows that burning whole trees in power plants actually increases carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels for many decades—anywhere from 35 to 100 years or more. It also emits higher levels of multiple air pollutants.
The result of this new demand has been the explosive growth of wood pellet exports from North America, most of which originate in our Southern forests here in the U.S., putting into peril some of the most valuable ecosystems in the world.
At the leading edge of this new industry is Enviva, the South’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Enviva harvests trees from Southern forests, chips them in pellet mills and loads the pellets onto ships bound for Europe, where they are burned in utility-scale power plants to keep the lights on in Europe. Not exactly a cozy picture.
New maps and a report published last week by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Dogwood Alliance show what’s at stake for the forests surrounding Enviva’s Ahoskie facility—and the multitude of species that depend on them for their habitat. Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) data layers to show the landscapes and species within the 75-mile radius from which the Ahoskie mill buys trees for wood pellet manufacturing, the results reveal how Enviva has some of the most biologically diverse and environmentally sensitive natural forests in the world in its crosshairs.
Enviva’s Ahoskie mill alone produces roughly 400,000 tons of wood pellets per year for export to Europe as fuel for electricity. To feed the facility, Enviva sources wood from the Southeastern Mixed Forests and the Middle Atlantic Coastal Forests ecoregions, both of which have been designated by the World Wildlife Fund as critical/endangered because of their high biodiversity and the combination of threats they face, including habitat fragmentation and land conversion. Yet less than one percent of the forests in the Ahoskie facility’s sourcing region are protected from logging activities that would degrade native ecosystems.
Natural forests within the Ahoskie mill’s sourcing area have already been reduced to just a small percentage of their original size, with large swaths converted to pine plantations. As the first map shows and the report details, the few remaining natural forests in this landscape are highly fragmented:
The second map identifies locations of wetland hardwood forests surrounding the Ahoskie mill. The Wall Street Journal documented how Enviva sources wood for its flagship pellet-manufacturing mill in Ahoskie, NC, from clear-cut wetland forests in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal ecoregion, some with trees more than 100 years old.
Clear-cutting wetland hardwood forests has serious ecological impacts. Forested wetlands play a vital role as anchors for remaining biodiversity across this broad landscape, offering habitat for waterfowl, songbirds, black bear and a variety of reptiles and amphibians. At the same time, these forests also provide invaluable ecosystem services for communities, including improved water quality, flood storage and the buffering of water flow during drought.
When these landscapes vanish, so do all the benefits they provide—such as critical habitat for wildlife—and water quality and flood protection for nearby communities.
Sadly, much of the forested wetlands in the broad ecoregion from which Enviva is sourcing have already been lost to logging. By using wetland species to make wood pellets, Enviva puts additional pressure on these forests, encouraging clear-cut logging of these sensitive forests.
The third and fourth maps in the series differentiate between the increased presence of pine forests, mostly pine plantations and the few remaining natural forest types in the region:
Ahoskie is just one of dozens of wood pellet mills currently operating in the South, a region that has become the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world. Industry growth has been explosive. In 2012, 1.3 million tons of wood pellets were exported from the South for biomass. Market analysts expect that number to more than quadruple to almost 6 million tons by 2015.
The massive additional demand for logs being driven by the biomass energy industry now risks destroying ecosystems that can never be replaced. Increased use of wood from natural forests by Enviva and other biomass companies will lead to additional fragmentation of what is clearly an already highly fragmented landscape, decreasing landscape integrity, water quality and flood storage, wildlife corridors and habitats, and recreational resources. Greater use of plantation pine will incentivize future conversion of the few remaining natural and semi-natural forests to intensive plantations, which bear little resemblance to natural forests in terms of the biological diversity and wildlife habitat they support.
Enviva and other companies using biomass or producing wood pellets for utilities must establish adequate policies to protect our climate and forests before expanding their activities.
Quickly shifting our power sector away from coal and other fossil fuels is obviously critical. And while there is a limited role for wood residuals—for example, tops and limbs from logging operations, provided strict sustainability standards are adopted, or sustainably grown agricultural materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill or burned—the right way to do this is through investments in energy efficiency and modern, twenty-first century energy technologies like wind, solar and geothermal.
Cutting down our precious forests to fuel a return to prehistoric energy sources like burning wood is not the solution.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt met with Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris before deciding to reverse an earlier EPA decision to ban the company's toxic and widely used pesticide, chlorpyrifos.
According to records obtained by the Associated Press, the EPA boss met with Liveris for about 30 minutes at a Houston hotel on March 9. Later that month, Pruitt announced that he would no longer pursue a ban on chlorpyrifos from being used on food, ignoring his agency's own review that even small amounts of the pesticide could impact fetus and infant brain development.
Native communities and environmental justice advocates in Louisiana opened a new resistance camp Saturday to oppose the proposed Bayou Bridge Pipeline project. Called L'eau Est La Vie, or Water is Life, the camp will consist of floating indigenous art structures on rafts and constant prayer ceremonies during its first two weeks.
Continuing its march toward elimination of key Clean Water Act protections, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday issued a formal notice of withdrawal of the Obama administration's rule defining which waters can be protected against pollution and destruction under federal law.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not doing enough to prevent weed resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) says a new report from the EPA's Inspector General's Office, which draws in part on a report from the agbiotech company, Pioneer: Weed Management in the Era of Glyphosate Resistance.
When it comes to the latest wind turbine technologies, size matters. A group of six institutions and universities is designing an offshore wind turbine that will stand 500 meters in height. That's taller than the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.
The research team, led by researchers at the University of Virginia, believes that its wind turbine concept will produce 50 megawatts of peak power, or about 10 times more powerful than conventional wind turbines.
Natural gas is often considered the cleanest fossil fuel, but could it actually be dirtier than coal?
Watch as New York Times reporter Mark Bittman, in the above Year's of Living Dangerously video, investigates how much methane is leaking at fracking wells. Find out how the natural gas industry's claims compare to what scientists are reporting.
See what happens when Gaby Petron, an atmospheric scientist with NOAA, converts her van into a mobile methane detector and sets out across northeastern Colorado for two years, taking thousands of readings to uncover the truth.
Adrian Grenier: 'We Must Usher in a New Era of Compassion Through Forward Thinking Environmental Programs'
Adrian Grenier was named UN Goodwill Ambassador earlier this month. The Hollywood actor, best known for his iconic role of A-list movie star Vincent Chase in the HBO smash hit and film Entourage, will advocate for drastically reducing single-use plastic and protection of marine species, and encourage his followers to make conscious consumer choices to reduce their environmental footprint, according to the UN Environment announcement.
"Together we must usher in a new era of compassion and carefulness through forward thinking environmental programs to drive measurable change," Grenier said. "I am personally committed to creating ways in which the global community can come together to help solve our most critical climate crises through routine, collective action.
"The more we connect to nature in our daily lives, the more dedicated we will become to our individual commitments. Together, I believe we can go further, faster in our race to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030."
Watch the video above to learn more.