UK Government Investigates Wood Pellet Industry in US South

In less than a year, the Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign has shined a big spotlight on the forest destruction that has followed in the wake of the South’s expanding wood pellet export industry. We’ve elevated the concerns of affected communities, conservation organizations and top US scientists, rocketing those concerns into the international spotlight. As a result, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which is responsible for regulating utilities like Drax(a company that is increasingly reliant on wood pellets imports from the US South to generate electricity), decided it needed to investigate.

Danna Smith, Dr. Anna Stephenson, and Tom Llewellyn

Last week Dr. Anna Stephenson, a scientist from DECC, flew from London to Raleigh, North Carolina to begin a two week investigation of the forest and climate impacts associated with the UK’s increasing reliance on imported wood pellets as a fuel source for generating electricity. Her first stops were in North Carolina and Virginia, where Enviva, the South’s largest wood pellet exporter, operates three facilities that have been a major source of controversy, having been linked to the destruction of hardwood wetland forests.

Dr. Stephenson’s two week itinerary, which in addition to meeting with us and our conservation allies, involved meetings with top scientists in the region, foresters and the wood pellet industry, including Enviva. Dogwood Campaign Organizer, Tom Llewellyn, and I organized a day and a half of her itinerary. We thought it would be good to get Dr. Stephenson out in the forest for some ground-truthing around Enviva’s facilities in North Hampton, North Carolina and Courtland, Virginia.

In frigid conditions (high of 30 degrees F), we took Dr.Stephenson out on a kayak in the Blackwater River of Virginia. We quickly forgot the freezing temperatures once we kayaked into a stretch of ancient, bottomland hardwood wetland forest with thousand-year-old cypress trees.

Our river guide, Tim McCormick, who grew up playing along this very river, guided us effortlessly through the maze of giants, telling us about both the uniqueness of these bottomland hardwood forests and the tragedy of the destruction he has witnessed in his lifetime. Time seemed to stand still as we meandered through this endangered forest. We were in awe at every turn, admiring every tree, big and small, straight and twisted. After nearly two hours, we emerged from the swamp, everyone vividly more relaxed, refreshed and peaceful than when we started. That feeling that you get when you spend time in a healthy forest is truly priceless, and I’m glad we were able to bring that to the forefront of Dr. Stephenson’s investigation.

Dr. Stephenson experiences the peace of the wetland forest in a kayak

The next leg of our field trip wasn’t so inspiring but just as essential. We traveled to a logging site that Tom had traced back to the Enviva wood pellet facility last fall. The site was off on a dirt road and flanked with industrial pine plantations on either side. After about a mile or two of seeing nothing but pine plantations, we stopped at a mature wetland forest that had just been clearcut. We estimate that the cut was about 150 acres, stretching as far as the eye could see. What used to be an oasis in the middle of a landscape dominated by industrial pine plantations was gone, flattened to the ground.

That forest is not coming back in our lifetime. It will likely take 100 years or more for that forest to grow back to maturity, reminding us that the bottomland hardwood forests we lose today will be gone for a very, very long time. Not only that, but chances are it won’t be left alone for 100 years. If current trends in wood pellet production continue, that forest will be cut again long before it can regrow to maturity. Gone is the habitat for the species that thrived in this forest. So much for wood pellets being a source of “renewable” energy.

Danna Smith is dwarfed by the devastation of this clearcut

Gone is the carbon stored in the trees that were turned into wood pellets, shipped across the Atlantic and burned into the atmosphere to generate electricity in Europe. Beyond that immediate release of otherwise stored carbon, every time a forest is cut, any trees growing back are removing a lot less carbon from the atmosphere than the previous forest. It’s like having to start all over again. This point was reinforced yet again just last month in another scientific study published in Nature, documenting that the older a tree, the faster it sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. So much for wood pellets being an energy solution to climate change.

For the past several years, wood pellet manufacturers in the US South have been lobbying government officials across Europe, assuring everyone that all is well in the Southern US and that their practices are “sustainable”. But, as we ramp up the Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign, Europe is now beginning to hear another side of the “sustainable forestry” story. Evidence of the dangers of relying on forests as a fuel source for electricity generation is mounting. Maybe, just maybe, Dr. Stephenson’s visit is an early sign that the tide is starting to turn. Maybe, just maybe, government officials in the UK and throughout Europe are starting to seriously question the notion that burning trees to generate electricity is a solution to climate change. Let’s hope so. Our future depends on it.

A huge, ancient cypress tree…and a piece of our future

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