Introducing the Biomass Baddies Failing Forests, Climate, and Justice

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has a glimmer of hope among the bleak warnings. The report calls for a huge shift that focuses efforts on the maintenance and growth of natural systems. Natural systems like forests. To avoid the worst, the report urges us to conserve half of the Earth’s lands. The report also underscores the need to deviate from “maladaptive solutions”, or well-intentioned solutions gone wrong. To preserve the livability of our planet, we must change course and stop large scale biomass immediately.

What is biomass?

Biomass is an ambiguous term that is also called bioenergy, wood pellets, woody biomass, and more. No matter the name, it means burning trees in power stations for electricity.

For over a decade, the biomass industry has operated on a foundation of faulty logic. They claim it’s a renewable and carbon neutral form of energy. But biomass releases climate warming carbon into the atmosphere every step of the way. The industry cuts down forests of the Southeastern US and converts them to pellets. They ship our forests overseas. Then they burn our forests in foreign power stations as an alternative to coal.

The worst part is they do this on our dime. Biomass companies receive billions worldwide in renewable energy subsidies from taxpayers.

This industry couldn’t survive without taxpayer dollars. Governments throw money at biomass companies because they think biomass can help their countries reach renewable energy goals. All the while biomass is pushing those countries and the rest of the world further away from a clean energy future.

What are the impacts of biomass?

The biomass industry destroys rich, biodiverse forests and replaces them with single species plantations. Quickly converting carbon sinks into carbon emitters. These plantations can take decades to store the same amount of carbon as mature forests. Decades we don’t have.

Our planet desperately needs viable renewable energy now so that we can move away from fossil fuels.

Biomass is a false solution.

It increases carbon emissions, forest destruction, and harms us all by increasing pollution and weakening climate resiliency.

Unfortunately, the demand for biomass is rapidly growing. What was meant to be a transitional energy source has unleashed a Pandora’s box of climate catastrophe. Large scale forest destruction in the Southern US hurts climate resiliency worldwide. Losing a forest may be a local issue, but burning a forest is a global one. To help you understand how we got here, we created this list of Biomass Baddies propelling the rise of this polluting, propped-up industry.

The Big RED Lie: EU Commission – Renewable Energy Directive I & II

A bad policy led to biomass becoming classified as a “renewable energy”. In 2009, the European Commission created The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The RED uses bad logic: If you cut down a tree, burn it, and then plant another one, it’s carbon neutral. We have plenty of scientific evidence that burning biomass for energy emits 30-50% more carbon than burning coal.

After the 2015 Paris agreement, the RED decided Europe’s path to reach their goals of reducing carbon emissions. Because of false carbon accounting, bioenergy is now ⅔ of the energy the EU classifies as renewable. When RED II passed in 2018, it doubled down on bioenergy as a so-called renewable energy solution for at least another decade.

We shouldn’t define biomass as renewable energy, and the EU should not subsidize it. Industrial bioenergy is not “renewable” and adds emissions to the atmosphere when we need to be reducing them. The EU must change course before the rest of the world follows their horrible lead.

The Monster Market: The UK Government

Once the EU gave the green light, the UK jumped at the opportunity to greenwash burning wood for electricity. The UK is the largest importer of wood pellets in the world. They source destroyed forests from the Southern US, Canada, Estonia, and Brazil. Even after Brexit, the UK continues to subsidize biomass at astonishing levels. In 2019 alone, the UK imported 8.5 million tons of biomass. They also granted subsidies of almost £3 million a day to large biomass-burning power plants in the UK.

Massive amounts of public resources are going towards an energy source that hurts forests and biodiversity, increases carbon emissions, and places communities at risk. One in every five pounds the UK spends on renewable subsidies goes to bioenergy. Not to wind, solar, or other truly clean energy sources. This is shocking. Wind and solar power guarantee real emissions reductions, are readily available, and come at a fraction of the cost. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he wants to lead the world in tackling the climate crisis and protecting nature. Yet, his government has invested billions in subsidies for dirty biomass electricity.

Take Action: Urge the UK Government to Stop Burning Trees for Energy.

The Polluting Profiteers: Drax

Drax has been identified as the UK’s biggest source of CO2 emissions. The UK may be the largest importer of wood pellets in the world, but Drax is the biggest burner of our forests. Drax claims its biomass is “sourced from sustainably managed working forests which grow back and stay as forests.” That’s simply not true. Reports show their sourcing has come from natural hardwood forests in the Southern US. In some cases, they’ve sourced wood from ancient forests in Belarus and Russia. All this burning of biomass is awful for the climate. Drax is one of Europe’s top five emitters of dangerous particulate emissions. They’re on the list with some of the continent’s worst coal power plants.

Drax is also the world’s second largest wood pellet producer. They operate facilities in Louisiana (Morehouse, La Salle) and Mississippi (Amite). Drax recently bought Pinnacle Renewable Energy (PRE), a Canadian wood pellet manufacturer. PRE has sourced wood from forests that provide a home for the Southern mountain caribou, an animal threatened by habitat loss.

Drax is so terrible that they were issued the largest fine ever for a biomass production facility for exceeding pollution limits at their plant in Gloster, MS for years.

This facility is in the backyard of the Blackmon Hole community who has not received one cent to improve their health. The community was shocked to learn that the $2.5 million dollar fine was less than the subsidies that Drax receives from the UK government in a single day.

Drax’s strong relationship with the UK government is beginning to fail. One of the government’s ministers said “there are real problems” with burning wood for electricity. Let the entire house of cards come crashing down. That’s better than the UK digging in deeper with biomass or carbon capture storage (BECCS). Let’s take those taxpayer subsidies from Drax and give them to truly clean energy projects.

The Shady Suppliers: Enviva

Maryland-based Enviva is the world’s largest manufacturer of wood pellets. They turn mostly whole trees into pellets that are then shipped overseas and burned in power stations. Europe and the UK’s policies have caused Enviva to rapidly grow. Enviva claims that its product is fighting climate change. Yet, in North Carolina alone, Enviva has logged 300,000 acres of forests in just eight years. This forest destruction released 28 million tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) during harvest, transport, production, and combustion. That’s the same as burning 14 million tons of coal or 6.5 coal plants operating for a full year.

Enviva currently operates nine wood pellet facilities, has three more in various parts of development, and is considering five more. In January of 2022, they announced plans to double their production.

Communities that have Enviva in their backyard have spoken out against this company as a bad neighbor.

Their plants run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nearby residents never get a break from the incessant noise, dust, volatile airborne compounds, and pollution. All this amounts to increased rates of cancer, asthma, and tree loss. Tree loss increases air temperature, which can lead to even more health risks. Enviva’s entire operation negatively impacts community health and climate resiliency.

Enviva also promises good, high-paying jobs when they come to town. Check out their Indeed employee reviews to see how they really treat their workers. Former employees complain about dangerous working conditions, lack of job security, and bad management practices. Enviva talks a good game, but in reality they crush their people like they destroy our forests and climate. Reality doesn’t match their boasts about the great jobs they bring to rural communities.

The Greenwash Ghouls: Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) and Other Certification Schemes

If you look at any paper product, you might find a symbol. Many of these products will have a SFI or FSC symbol. These symbols are certifying that they’ve manufactured the product to a certain standard. Certifications are businesses, and they operate by charging licensing fees. Manufacturers then use certification schemes to sell their products for a premium.

Certification schemes are never as rigorous as they should be. In some cases, they’re outright greenwashing. This is true of one certification in particular: the Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP). Biomass companies created the SBP standard themselves. Then they turn around and use it to certify that their products were sustainable and legally sourced.

To quote our partners NRDC on the matter,

As a whole, the SBP is more noteworthy for what it doesn’t require rather than what it does. It functions basically as a self-assessment scheme for biomass producers, with virtually no requirements for independent on-site forest audits.

The SBP standard is a perfect example of greenwashing and self-regulation gone wrong.

The Pushover Politicians: Cooper, Westerman, and Collins

We’ve been asking North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper to break up with the biomass industry for years. Despite calling himself a climate leader, under his leadership NC became the largest exporter of wood pellets in the nation. The biomass industry cuts 60,000 acres of the state’s forests every year to feed demand.

North Carolina has given away $10 million in our tax dollars to subsidize the biomass industry. That money could be invested in wind, solar, or other forms of truly renewable energy. The state could also use those resources to invest in pollution controls for communities living with dirty biomass.

All the biomass facilities in North Carolina were built in Black and Indigenous environmental justice communities.

Governor Cooper hasn’t stopped the permitting of facilities in communities already suffering from the cumulative impacts of many pollution sources. His latest executive order does promise to address this concern in the future, but we must ensure he delivers on this promise.

Take Action: Hold Governor Cooper Accountable.

While politicians like Governor Cooper have done little to stop the growth of the biomass industry, there are a few actively promoting its expansion. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) worked as a forester before his election to the House. His interests are the logging industry’s interests. In 2021, he introduced the Trillion Trees Act. While a trillion trees sounds lovely at face value, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The bill requires an annual increase in logging levels and that all activities in the bill spur timber markets. That’s why environmentalists have called it the Trillion Stumps Initiative. The bill also tries to declare biomass as carbon neutral.

Rep. Westerman isn’t the only politician trying to replicate the EU’s terrible policy. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) has also introduced legislation to declare biomass as a carbon neutral renewable energy source. This would be a US version of the Renewable Energy Directive I & II. If the US follows the EU down this path, it will be disastrous for forests, climate, and environmental justice.

The Weak Defense: State EPA Agencies

The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and the environment. Congress writes environmental laws and the EPA implements them through regulations and enforcement. State level agencies are usually the last line of defense when it comes to protecting public health, maintaining air and water quality, and ensuring public input. Unfortunately, state agencies in the South are failing us when it comes to the biomass industry.

Time and again state agencies are rubber stamping permits for biomass facilities. In some cases, they don’t even allow for a public comment period. The residents of Adel, GA are still waiting for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA EPD) to give them their chance to speak against a proposed biomass plant in their backyard.

In cases where people showed up to protest, like in Greenwood, SC or when hundreds of people have spoken out in opposition, like in North Carolina, it doesn’t change the outcome. Georgia’s EPD, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC), and North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) granted permits for new or expanding biomass facilities. This was despite fierce opposition from the Black and Indigenous people that will be living with dirty air as a result. They’ve done so without any consideration for those already burdened with existing pollution sources.

In Gloster, MS, Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality (MS DEQ) fined the Drax Amite plant $2.5 million dollars for exceeding air pollution limits for over three years. This fine amounts to a slap on the wrist and is around the amount of money Drax receives daily in subsidies. MS DEQ is yet to notify local residents the pollution occurred, and they haven’t invested a dime in repairing the community’s health.

How are these agencies protecting human health and the environment when they allow our people to be poisoned and our forests to be destroyed?

Take Action: Tell the EPA No More Extraction!.

The Avoidable Future: Japanese Markets

Japan is now the world’s fastest growing market for wood pellets. Japan’s Prime Minister Suga committed the country to carbon neutrality by 2050. Large energy manufacturers have had to follow suit. For coal burners, like Sumitomo, we’ve seen a massive shift from burning coal to burning forests. As a result, Japan has dramatically increased imports of wood pellets from forests.

By 2025, Enviva expects to produce 7.1 million tons of wood pellets (compared to 3.6 million tons in 2019) to meet Japanese demand. This is a staggering increase in production. More and more the future of our forests and climate is tied to Japan’s biomass industry. Companies like Sumitomo and the Japanese government should avoid biomass if they don’t want the negative impacts on forests and high greenhouse gas emissions.

The Nature Conspiracy: The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. That’s why it’s mind-boggling that they falsely promote wood production and logging as a solution to the climate crisis. They’ve used their power and influence to shape forest policy that benefits the forest industry, not climate justice.

In fact, they supported over $1.5 billion in subsidies for the forest industry as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. They have also promoted forest carbon markets. This allowed fossil fuel polluters to “offset their emissions” with sham forest conservation efforts for TNC’s financial gain. TNC has also refused to recognize the impacts of wood products and logging on climate, biodiversity, and environmental justice communities.

That’s why a coalition of scientists, faith, and environmental justice leaders along with forest defenders has released: The Nature Conspiracy. A tell-all exposé calling out TNC for its duplicity.

The coalition produced the exposé after years of failed attempts to open a dialog with TNC only to have their concerns repeatedly dismissed. The exposé was released alongside an open letter to TNC’s CEO, Jennifer Morris, that more than 150 organizations signed.

Why is the world’s largest conservation organization using their massive resources and influence to promote forest destruction? As recently as 2021, they allowed a major investor and board member of Enviva to sit on their Advisory Board for the NatureVest program. They’re also a member of the Forest Climate Working Group along with both Enviva and Drax. This group promotes investments in wood markets as a “natural climate solution.”

TNC is the wealthiest, most powerful environmental organization in the world. The coalition hopes that public awareness will prompt funders and policymakers to demand accountability for the problems of industrial logging. In addition, they hope public pressure motivates TNC to shift their focus to protecting forests and communities instead of enabling polluting industries like biomass.

Where do we go from here?

Whether it’s sunken cost fallacy or malice, it’s a mistake to classify biomass as carbon neutral. Governments and corporations have wasted more than a decade pursuing a maladaptive climate solution.

Biomass is worse than the energy source it intended to replace. Biomass has never been and will never be a clean, renewable energy alternative.

It’s possible that none of these baddies set out to intentionally harm our forests, climate, or people. But instead of focusing on the intent of biomass, we should be focusing on its impact.

The impact is more climate-warming carbon in the atmosphere. The impact is weaker resiliency against rising waters and temperatures. The impact is Black and Indigenous communities living with greater air pollution and susceptibility to disease. It’s losing forests and biodiversity at a massive scale, especially in the US South. It’s wasting billions of dollars in subsidies that could be invested in truly renewable clean energy alternatives. The impact is we’ve lost valuable time propping up an industry that isn’t economically or environmentally sustainable.

Many of the same scientists that have warned us on climate are now warning us against biomass. We should listen to them. Forests are a natural system that removes and stores carbon. They’re key to our survival and climate adaptability. Forests are our best climate defense. Protecting forests protects our future on this planet.

Take Action: Urge President Biden to Enact Federal Forest Protections!

7 Responses to “Introducing the Biomass Baddies Failing Forests, Climate, and Justice”

  1. Peter Merz

    . Use the same tactics of shaping public opinion as they.

    Reply
  2. Peter Merz

    The SBP and TNC is a key source of our problem Thhese organizations are fraudulent organizations How to combat their environmental greenwashing of renewable biomass is a Herculean task. How can we prove fraud in the courts of public opinion. Use the same tactics of shaping public opinion as they.

    Reply
  3. Patsy Shafchuk

    Just awesome! I should be able to expect that other environmental groups would repeat this story. Sadly, I expect to be disappointed. That’s why I’m going to forward this link to every NGO for which I sign petitions.

    Reply
  4. Lisa Carpenter

    Please help our community stop Enviva from building near our homes.
    We are trying to educate our supervisors who are
    Determined to allow Enviva
    To build near our homes. Our officials have been convinced by Enviva that is is wonderful, and they are
    Offering Enviva approximately $700,000 in ten years tax exemption.
    Our supervisors are not educated on the subject
    And do not care to learn. Enviva has swooned them.
    We would like to have several people from other states to come to our county meeting and explain the behavior and effects of a pellet plant near homes. We will pay for airfare, hotel, meals etc expenses.
    Can you lead us in the right direction to
    Fight this? Lawyers, residents and any suggestions will be greatly welcomed. We have a group of business men and women who are willing to donate to have this relocated.
    Thank you,
    Lisa Carpenter

    Reply
  5. JoAnne Phipps

    The Koch Brothers are building a biomass facility in Natchez MS to make jet fuel! What can we do to stop this or demand EPA conduct an honest environmental impact review before they clear cut southwestern MS?

    Reply

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