As the wood pellet industry grows across the US South, we’re asked again and again: Do Enviva or other wood pellet facilities clearcut forests? While the detailed answer is complex, the simple answer is: Yes. Enviva, Drax, and other wood pellet manufacturers ALL use wood from clearcut forests.
Let’s break down where wood pellet production facilities get their wood. We’ll also talk about what to expect as the wood pellets industry continues to grow.
What are wood pellets and how do they differ from other forest products?
Wood pellet companies turn raw materials (whole trees, dust, and occasionally branches) into compressed pellets. Homes burn these pellets for heat, and power plants burn them for electricity.
Companies can make wood pellets from any type of wood. They used to make them from “low value wood”, like dust or chips left over from another product. Now they usually make pellets out of wood from large logs and whole trees. This is because there is international demand for wood pellets.
Are wood pellets a carbon neutral energy source?
There’s international demand for wood pellets. This is because some global agreements said that wood pellets were a “carbon neutral” energy source. They said this is because new trees can grow on land that has been clearcut. They neglect to share that it takes many decades for cut trees to regrow. Nowadays, scientific evidence says that wood pellets are NOT carbon neutral.
Wood pellets emit carbon (greenhouse gas emissions) directly into the atmosphere. It can take decades, even up to a century, for that carbon to be recovered by a growing forest. While growing trees do absorb carbon, they do it over a long period of time. To fight climate change, we need to use other renewable energy sources that don’t emit as much carbon.
However, international governments haven’t quite caught up yet. They still say that burning biomass for renewable energy is a good idea to reduce carbon emissions. As a result, demand has grown for the wood pellet industry, which offers zero climate benefits. False so-called “renewable” energy products like wood pellets are contributing to the climate crisis, not helping us fight climate change.
What is a clearcut?
The most common type of logging in the US, especially in the US South, is a clearcut. A clearcut is when loggers remove all the wood from an area of forest. This leaves bare ground behind. New trees are either planted or allowed to regrow naturally. Companies clearcut forests because it is easier for them to move equipment in a clearcut.
However, the ecological impacts of clearcuts are worse than other types of logging. Because clearcuts are the most common type of harvest, any forest products company that uses wood will get most of it from a clearcut.
Who actually clearcuts the forests?
Most of the time, wood products companies are not doing the logging themselves. Instead, companies like Enviva and Drax hire contract loggers. These contract loggers are in charge of their own insurance and equipment. Contract loggers are usually paid a flat fee instead of hourly wages.
Because of this distinction, the wood pellet industry will often blame bad practices on the loggers. They point to their own “responsible sourcing policy” and say that the loggers violated their contracts. This is a way to push responsibility onto a third party when something goes wrong.
What is a “waste” product or “waste” wood?
The biomass industry often refers to “waste” wood as a way to minimize what they’re doing in forests. They’ll say things like, “Oh, we only use waste wood, don’t worry!” To the biomass industry, waste wood or “low value wood” is any tree that isn’t perfectly shaped.
For example, a slightly crooked tree might be considered “waste” because it’s not perfect for lumber. But that tree has a lot of value if it’s left alone. Trees filter water, clean our air, and provide homes for wildlife. In nature, nothing is waste.
What types of forests are getting clearcut?
The biomass industry is not picky when it comes to the trees that they get. In North Carolina, the bioenergy industry took wood from 27 types of forest in 2019. 41% of the wood that bioenergy facilities received was loblolly and shortleaf pine forests, which could have been either natural or planted.
Around biomass industry facilities, anywhere from 15-30% of forested area is actually planted pine trees, not real forests. These “forests” offer far less in ecological value than real forests. Plus, pine plantations need extra things like herbicides and pesticides to grow successfully. They’re like the cornfields of forests.
The next largest category of wood that the pellet industry uses are tree species that grow in moist soil, often near rivers and streams. These trees, including sweetgum, black gum, sycamore, and poplar made up roughly 28% of the pellet industry wood in North Carolina.
Does the wood pellet industry cut old growth forests?
A common question we get is whether or not the biomass industry is cutting down old growth forests. Unfortunately, there’s no one standard definition of old growth forest. So it’s hard to definitively answer that question.
If we define old growth as forests over 80 years old, then chances are that the biomass industry is receiving wood from those forests. In 2019, approximately 2% of forest harvests in North Carolina were from stands older than 80 years.
However, if we’re defining old growth as containing certain ecological characteristics like downed wood and biodiversity, then the answer is less clear. We don’t have an easy way to measure those characteristics on a big scale. Companies would need to have audits for old growth characteristics in every forest that they logged.
As the wood pellet industry continues to grow, there are serious concerns. Environmental justice, for example, is the idea that all communities deserve equal access to environmental quality. The growth of the biomass industry has meant that some communities are bearing the brunt of the impacts.
Climate change is a big concern as well. As long as there are claims of “green energy” for this industry, it’ll continue to grow and replace fossil fuels without offering any significant carbon savings. We need to use a renewable energy source that is low carbon (like wind or solar) to really address the climate change issue.
Yes, companies like Enviva, Drax, and others do use wood from clearcuts to make their wood pellets. Environmental groups like Dogwood Alliance, the Southern Environmental Law Center, NRDC, and others have been trying to set the record straight for years. If you want to help us fight climate change and get countries to recognize the true cost of their biomass imports, step up and join the fight today.
If you’re in North Carolina, you can take this action to urge Governor Cooper to act on biomass before its too late. If you’re outside of North Carolina, you can urge the Biden administration to take action to protect forests. You can also visit our Act Now page to see our most recent actions, join our list, or become a Forest Defender to maximize YOUR impact on Southern forests.