For the past 3 years, Dogwood Alliance, NRDC, and SELC have sounded the alarm about the widespread, destructive impacts to our forests, communities and climate caused by the rapidly expanding wood pellet industry. Today’s announcement by Enviva, the largest wood pellet manufacturer in the US, is a clear indication that the collective efforts of our organizations are having a direct impact on the practices of this industry.
Enviva is attempting to distract the public from the well-documented and irreplaceable environmental damage that they have already caused and will continue to cause. The Enviva Conservation Fund may be a step in the right direction but this initiative is a drop in the bucket compared to Enviva’s overall impact and does not address the most fundamental problem with Enviva’s business plan – that burning whole trees (even low-grade ones) to produce electricity can be worse for the climate than coal.
Enviva’s announcement does nothing to address the fact that burning wood pellets in Europe from the mature hardwood forests of the Southern US is estimated to result in four times the carbon emissions that would occur from continuing to burn coal over the next century. The export of wood pellets from the region to Europe is based on a government subsidized energy program gone awry. The UK and the EU are in effect subsidizing the logging of forests here in the US that are then shipped as wood pellets across the Atlantic and burned in power plants, enabling dirty coal power plants to continuing operating.
Fundamentally flawed climate policy liquidates our valuable carbon sinks in the United States and sends the carbon up smokestacks in Europe. A 2014 study by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change concluded burning pellets from mature hardwood forests in the southern US will result in four times the amount of carbon emissions compared to continuing to burn coal over 100 years. If Enviva and the European utilities and governments are serious about reducing carbon emissions, they would start by protecting, and not burning pellets from, hardwood forests from the southern US. If reducing carbon emissions were the purpose of wood pellet sourcing, southern hardwood forests would not be cut at all to be burned.
Southern forests are currently logged at a rate that is 4 times that of South American rainforests and if emissions from soil disturbance are factored into the carbon accounting (which they aren’t) forests can essentially change from being carbon sinks to carbon sources. The biomass industry exacerbates this potential and takes important momentum and resources away from truly low-carbon solutions such as wind, solar, energy efficiency, tidal, etc.
Enviva’s conservation initiative represents a drop in the bucket compared to their overall landscape impacts.
Consider the following:
- Hundreds of thousands of acres of predominantly natural forests will be impacted by Enviva across their supply chain over the next ten years compared to the thousands that they hope to conserve.
- Enviva’s new initiative fails to put off limits to pellet sourcing some of our most ecologically sensitive and valuable forests including oak and ash swamps, black gum swamps, non-riverine hardwood swamps and longleaf pine forests.
- Approximately 60 percent of all vulnerable bottomland hardwoods (537,500 acres) in Virginia and 40 percent of all vulnerable bottomland hardwoods (1.1 million acres) in North Carolina lie within the potential 75-mile sourcing radii of the three Enviva plants in the region.
- At scheduled production levels (assumed 2.35 million dry metric tons/year, and 80 percent hardwood input), the three existing and two proposed Enviva wood pellet mills in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia will require cutting approximately 30 square miles of hardwood forests (over 19,000 acres) in the sourcing area every year.
- This doesn’t even take into account Enviva’s operations in other SE regions. For example, Enviva has 2 additional facilities along the Alabama/Mississippi border where a total of around 2.5 million acres of vulnerable bottomland hardwood forests are within their potential sourcing area, including 1.7 million acres in Mississippi, 540,000 acres in Alabama, and 257,000 acres in Louisiana.
In the 21st century, clear-cutting and burning the very forests we depend on to soak up carbon and to protect our communities from the impacts of climate change represents an irrational and risky strategy. And yet this is what is likely to happen as a result of Enviva’s expansion plans fueled by the misguided energy policies of the EU and UK. The European Commission has mandated a review of wood biomass policies to assure verifiable carbon reductions and sustainable sourcing in climate policy. If European government subsidies are not continued, the wood pellet export industry in the southern US will quickly come to an end.
Rather than identifying four forest types where it does not plan to source pellets, Enviva and the European utilities should identify the forest types that will be impacted by expanded pellet production and accurately account for the resulting carbon emissions. Enviva should also immediately stop their planned expansion in the Carolinas which will only make this conservation fund less relevant to their entire sourcing footprint.