By Dr. Robert J. Cabin, Professor of Ecology, Brevard College
The Southeastern US has become the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets for biomass electricity generation. Between 2012 and 2013, wood pellet exports doubled to 1.7 million tons, and export volumes from this region are projected to jump to nearly 6 million tons by 2016.
This explosive growth in wood pellet exports is being driven by misguided European energy policies which incorrectly assume that burning wood will lower carbon emissions and help address climate change. Countless scientific studies show that compared to coal, burning trees in the form of wood pellets produces more atmospheric carbon per BTU of energy produced over the life cycle of both energy resources.
Adding insult to injury, Europe’s rising consumption of wood pellets is generating greater demand for trees at a time when our southeastern US forests are already under tremendous pressure from the more traditional wood and paper industries. This in turn threatens to further compromise the future ecological integrity of some of our most important and imperiled ecosystems.
For example, in May, the Wall Street Journal uncovered the fact that Enviva, the South’s largest exporter of wood pellets, relies on clearcutting hardwood wetland forests in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Eco-region at its mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Today, Dogwood Alliance and its campaign partner Natural Resources Defense Council released a series of maps and a brief report underscoring the threat Enviva’s operations at this facility poses to these forests, some of the South’s most threatened and valuable forest ecosystems.
The maps and report tell a compelling story of the extreme fragmentation as well as the enormous ecological value of the few remaining natural and semi natural forests, much of which are wetlands, that surround Enviva’s wood pellet mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Like many of the forests across the South, the planting of fast-growing industrial pine plantations has replaced many of the natural forests. The remnant natural forests that remain contribute invaluable and often unnoticed services we all depend on.
In addition to storing substantial amounts of carbon in the standing trees and soil, the slow-growing bottomland hardwood forests buffer natural and human communities from storms, floods, and droughts, maintain water quality of rivers and estuaries, and provide critical habitat for birds, black bear, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and other wildlife. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund, these forests “contain the most diverse assemblage of freshwater wetland communities in North America and perhaps of all temperate forest ecoregions” and “are some of the most biologically important habitats in North America.” They also “serve as a resource sink for upland aquatic communities, support[ing] aquatic food webs when flooded and terrestrial food chains during the dry season.”
Less than one percent of the forests within this sourcing region are permanently protected from logging. Neither the federal government, nor the States of North Carolina or Virginia sufficiently regulate industrial forestry, leaving the floodgates open to Enviva and other wood pellet manufacturers that are destroying some of the last remaining natural forests in the region.
One would hope that the European government, which many of us view as acting responsibly on environmental issues, might be of some help here. After all, their current policies are driving the destruction of our Southern forests. However, in a document leaked to the European press two weeks ago, it seems the EU government is siding with pellet manufacturers, as the current draft “sustainability criteria” they are considering would do nothing to help protect wetland or other critically important and endangered forests or ensure carbon emission reductions. Let’s hope they don’t just approve these meaningless standards and instead get their climate policies on the right track.
There are far better ways to convert biomass into electricity than clearing and burning our forests. For instance, if strict sustainability standards are adopted and enforced, on a small scale, wood waste or sustainably grown agricultural materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill could be used. Of course, in the end, energy conservation and efficiency combined with real renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, are almost always our best bets.