The Economic Impact of Enviva in North Carolina

Guest post by Amber Skinner

From protecting the atmosphere to providing homes for many organisms, forests are crucial for humans and the planet. Recent innovations allow us to use forms of renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal. With meaningful investment, these will soon replace fossil fuels as main energy sources and lower pollution and the carbon emissions that are warming the planet. None of these new technologies are 100 percent neutral, however. Some are even more harmful than what they are meant to replace. Bioenergy from trees is touted as “green” but is actually a high-carbon polluting energy form. Bioenergy companies, like Maryland-based Enviva, publish confusing statements about their practices to sound better than they actually are. Here’s the truth about Enviva.

Enviva’s Impact on the Economy

Enviva claims that their impact in North Carolina is great for the economy. The state of North Carolina has supported these claims by subsidizing the industry with $7.1 million in taxpayer dollars. But, from 2004 to 2009, the South lost over 20% of wood production jobs. Wood pellet production plants need money from foreign governments to export their pellets. The UK and other European countries give money to the plants because wood pellet production claims to be “eco-friendly.” The corporations risk losing this money if the lie of biomass as a clean energy solution is exposed. The fact is, removing trees from the ground, making them into pellets and burning them in power plants worsens climate change.

The industry often claims that it provides much needed good jobs to the neighborhoods they seek to operate in. But is this true, and at what cost? Enviva may bring a handful of jobs, but the executive jobs are still outsourced, away from the communities where the plants are located. Enviva is based in Bethesda, MD – part of the Washington, DC metro area. Other executives for Enviva live and work in places like Raleigh, NC – hours away from the facilities that they manage. Meanwhile, communities near the plants suffer, with higher exposure to air pollution, truck traffic 24/7, and dust so heavy that residents can’t garden or enjoy their own backyards.

enviva wood pellet biomass
Photo Credit: Views From Above

Also, industrial resource extraction has a restricting effect on economic growth. Counties supported by exporting industries are subject to the whims of international economics. This means that sudden plant closures are normal. Rural communities with wood pellet plants may not have economic growth in other areas, because the presence of manufacturing industries can make those places undesirable. For example, communities may not be able to draw in tourists because manufacturing facilities are ugly, polluting, and often surrounded by barren land. Having a wood pellet production plant in a community leads to dangerous, unintended economic consequences.

Foreign support largely drives Enviva’s economic growth. For example, the UK gave Drax, a major UK energy provider, $965 million dollars in subsidies to burn wood pellets. Most of the wood pellets were produced in the US South by Enviva. These subsidies are Enviva’s business model, and they’re due to dry up soon. The Netherlands, for example, has stopped funding companies like Enviva to discourage bioenergy. Without foreign subsidies, the wood pellet industry is in trouble. The writing is on the wall for Enviva’s subsidy-driven business.

Additionally, there is a devastating environmental costs of Enviva’s operations. Like most manufacturing industries, the timber industry negatively impacts their surroundings. Material for creating wood products comes from a 50-75 mile radius around the facility. In the US South, industrial logging practices like clearcutting drive wood products companies. Clearcutting exerts a heavy toll on forest ecosystems. Clearcutting destroys the soil, kills wildlife and microorganisms, and pollutes the air that we breathe. These practices also cause noise pollution and water pollution. Natural forests are worth billions of dollars in ecosystem services (like clean water and air, protection from storms and flooding, and wildlife habitat) each year. By destroying the forests, Enviva hurts the North Carolina economy.

Enviva’s Impact on Jobs

Enviva claims that they create good, clean jobs for people, but working in the wood pellet industry is dangerous. The resources used to produce wood pellets are incredibly combustible and flammable. This results in perilous working conditions. Enviva’s wood pellet production plants are prone to fires and explosions. This risks the lives of the people the plant employs. In fact, on April 30th of this year, there was a fire at the Enviva Pellets Sampson Plant in Sampson County, North Carolina. It was caused by their wood resources catching on fire. Another wood pellet related fire at a warehouse in Brunswick, GA raged for days.

There is also a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Wood pellets release carbon monoxide, a gas known as the “silent killer”. If proper ventilation is not installed, high levels of CO concentration can lead to the deaths of workers in the plants or on transport ships.

wood pellets emerge from a machine

Enviva’s Impact on Forests

Enviva claims that our forests are growing. In fact, the rate at which forest resources are being utilized is not sustainable. Forests cannot and will not continue to grow if we keep cutting them down. The wood inventory has only been able to grow because of monoculture plantations. This is where the industries plant inexpensive, fast-growing pine trees in bulk. Monoculture plantations don’t provide nearly the same benefits that natural forests do.  a graph showing the loss of natural forests to plantations

Forest acreage has grown less than 2% in the last 64 years. Acres of “forest” in the US South are more and more likely to be pine plantations, not natural forests. Some people believe forest loss is due to the creation of cities (urbanization). However, globally, forest loss due to urbanization represents less than 1% of total loss. Most forest loss in the US is a result of forestry activities, like Enviva’s clearcutting. The forest products industry is the main cause of carbon loss, deforestation, and degradation in the United States.

a map showing the main cause of forest loss in the US South - forestry

To make matters worse, other measures of forest health have declined as logging has increased. Forests have changed a lot in the last 60 years. When plantations replace forests, there are more pests and less biodiversity. In addition, logging cuts right through forests, which causes large barren areas and forest fragmentation. These measures point to declines in forest health, but that’s not the story that Enviva chooses to tell. Instead, Enviva continues to greenwash their impacts on the economy and forests of the US South.

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Amber Skinner is a rising junior at Duke University and an intern at Dogwood Alliance for the summer. She is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Science and Policy with a special focus in environmental justice and education. Amber loves the outdoors, particularly hiking, and can be frequently found playing outside her home with her two kittens.

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