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.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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