Part II: Florida as Fiber Farm
(This is Part 2 of a two-part series. exploring the impact the wood pellet industry is having on the rural communities of the Gulf coast. Part 1 looked at the wood pellet industry in Mississippi and the destructive impact it has on the forests and the rural local economy.)
Following a heart-warming visit to Mobile, Alabama, where the local community is rising up in opposition of the export of Alabama forests to Europe to burn for electricity, our crew headed to Panama City, Florida.
Panama City is the port where Enviva ships wood pellets from its Cottondale, Florida pellet mill to Europe. Enviva recently acquired this mill when it purchased it from Green Circle. It was the first industrial-scale pellet mill built in the South.
The forests of northwest Florida represent a strange dichotomy – on the one hand, you find some of the most unique and biodiverse areas left in the South, and on the other hand, surrounding all of that wild nature, you find one of the regions hardest hit by conversion of natural forests to pine plantations.
These wild places truly represent oases amidst a pine desert.
Following a series of events and meetings in Panama City that included some of the hardest working conservationists I have met in my career, Dogwood Alliance Our Forests Aren’t Fuel Campaign Director Adam Macon and I took a field trip to Cottondale to visit the Enviva wood pellet mill.
Adam also joined Kent Wimmer from Florida Defenders of Wildlife to get a bird’s eye view of the mill and the forests that are at stake. This gave us valuable information on what to expect in our investigation.
Additionally, we got out on the water to see the export facility and were lucky enough to see one of the container ships being loaded with pellets.
It was shocking to see our forests reduced to a pile of pellets filling an enormous ship bound for Europe to be burned to keep the lights on overseas.
We drove to Cottondale straight into the heart of downtown Panama City. What we found is another once thriving Southern town that has become rundown as the local economy falters and the youth depart for big cities to seek new opportunities.
It was clear that the pellet mill did not bring a whole host of local jobs or inject new life into this once vibrant town.
Leaving downtown we headed to the wood pellet mill. We parked outside the gate, and in 20 minutes watched 19 trucks loaded with logs and wood chips enter the facility.
Truck after truck was loaded with destroyed Southern forests.
The striking difference between this facility and the Drax facility in Mississippi was that these trees were all tiny, meaning they were cut down at an incredibly young age. So much for allowing forests to grow back for the 40+ years needed to soak back all of the carbon lost from burning them.
After watching trucks for a while, we headed to a hill to get a better view of the facility. From our vantage point, the log yard at the facility was nearly empty. Essentially, they were processing the trees as quickly as they came in the gate.
I had the eerie feeling that this mill was like a mechanical monster literally devouring our forests.
Taking this all in left the two of us feeling empty inside, so we headed back into Panama City to try and process all that we had seen.
Essentially, massive subsidies in Europe paired with well-intentioned but misguided subsidies from state, county and local governments have created a forest destroying industry that is leaving our rural communities high and dry so a few corporate executives can make a massive profit.
The pellet industry and their supporters constantly talk about the benefits of the industry, but what they fail to address are the true costs of this industry.
Beyond wasted taxpayer dollars, this industry is destroying the future economic potential of the rural South.
While we should be investing in protecting forests for the clean water, carbon storage, wildlife habitat and many other benefits they provide we are instead selling them off to the lowest bidder.
The future potential of local communities is based on their ability to attract high paying jobs, entrepreneurs and retirees. With the loss of all of their natural amenities, there is no reason for anyone to move to or invest in those communities.
Add to that, regions like the Florida panhandle have long supported higher paying and higher quality wood products industries that create valuable products and more jobs. As the demand from the wood pellet industry grows, these industries will be pushed out as they will no longer have high quality forests available to meet their needs.
And what happens when the subsidies end? Government officials and policy-makers in the UK and EU are already talking about reducing and ending many of the subsidies necessary to support this industry.
When the money pipeline goes dry, our Southern communities will be left high and dry with stranded assets, a loss of the minimal jobs this industry provides and highly degraded forests.
Is this the kind of industry we want to see expand on the Gulf coast? We think not and hope that more folks of that region will join us in fighting the further expansion of this industry. Let’s embrace a sustainable energy future and one where we invest in conserving and restoring our forests for all of the amazing benefits they provide us.