Wood pellet biomass is a major threat to our climate, communities, and Southern forests. Many countries burn wood pellets for electricity. They see it as a climate-friendly, renewable energy option. Scientific consensus shows us, though, that biomass isn’t clean, green, or renewable. Instead the negative impacts of wood pellet biomass are far-reaching.
Impacts on forests
The United States has lost over a million acres of forests due to wood pellet biomass production. In North Carolina, the epicenter of the biomass industry, the state has lost 120,000 acres of bottomland hardwood to logging. This is an area about 20 times the size of the Triangle’s Umstead State Park. Making wood pellets uses a lot of land. This means that “fake forests” made up of planted pine will continue to increase. Changes in land use due to logging are a major cause of wildlife loss. Even the IPCC, the world’s climate change authority, says that we will lose wildlife by using more wood pellets and other biofuels.
Logging for wood pellets has increased the sheer amount of land logged every year as well as the intensity of logging. Wood pellet production uses more wood than other types of logging and means that less is left behind on the floor to help forests regrow. This impacts soil health and wildlife habitat.
Our forests have grown by less than 2% in the last 60 years. If our forests had continued growing as they were in 1964, there would be 25 million more acres of forests in the South. Instead, forest growth in the South has been hampered by overzealous logging for products such as paper and wood pellet biomass. Forest health is declining in the US South, and logging is to blame.
Impacts on communities
Economic development can be difficult in rural communities, especially in the South. Community members and elected officials want to be sure that the companies not only provide well paying jobs for decades to come but also serve as “good actors” in the community. Unfortunately, many companies mislead politicians about their impacts on health and pollution in order to set up shop.
Forests work hard to keep us cool, buffer us from storms, and absorb flood water. Wood pellet production increases forest degradation. Forest loss leads to less climate resiliency right at a time when hurricanes and flooding, droughts, and heat waves are becoming more extreme and we need our forests most. Community members in Northampton County, NC are telling us that even two-inch rains now spike flood waters as much as a four-inch rain did a decade ago. This anecdotal report mirrors others from the Cape Fear River, downstream from the Enviva Sampson plant, on the other side of the state. There, local river guide Charles Robbins said 2016’s Hurricane Matthew drove stream flows down the Cape Fear to three times what they had been during 1996’s Hurricane Fran. “The storms are getting stronger, yes, but there’s also a lot fewer trees to pull water from the river.”
While biomass is falling short on climate and job goals, it’s also bringing air pollution, noise, and reduced biodiversity to Black and low wealth communities. Silverleen Alston, who lives about a mile from Enviva’s plant in Northampton County, says,
“The noise… banging during all hours of the night. I used to call up to Enviva and tell them, why don’t they stop, lower the noise or whatever, till I stopped. I don’t even do it no more.”
In addition to the noise from truck traffic and grinding trees, there are complaints about a constant cloud of dust flowing from the plant onto their homes, cars, gardens, and into their lungs. A CNN video highlighted the struggle.
A 2018 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that 21 wood pellet mills exporting to the EU emit thousands of tons of particulate matter (fine dust), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (smog), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per year. These are all associated with a range of illnesses, from respiratory and heart disease to cancer. These wood pellet mills also emit 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. The report also found that at least a third of wood pellet facilities violated their air permit limits in 2017. In five states fires and explosions erupted in plants largely from wood dust, which is combustible. In 2017, a German Pellets wood pellet storage silo in Port Arthur, Texas caught fire and burned unchecked for two months, sending many local residents to the hospital. Later that year, a worker at the silo died when pellets fell on the Bobcat machine he was operating.
In the South, many rural areas are considered environmental justice areas: places with many low wealth BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) residents. These areas usually have a lot of pollution. In Hamlet, North Carolina, with just 6,500 residents, there are five polluting companies, including an Enviva wood pellet plant.
Companies take advantage of areas that need jobs, and politicians overlook the environmental harms. Wood pellet production facilities are 50% more likely to be sited in environmental justice communities.
Impacts on wildlife
The North American Coastal Plain was recognized only recently as meeting the criteria for a global biodiversity hotspot. The Southeast is unique because we have more than 1,500 endemic (species that exist nowhere else on the planet) vascular plants and more than 70% habitat loss. Our special places are under immense pressure. Intensive forestry is the biggest threat to biodiversity. An increased demand for forest biomass means more intensive forestry. More intensive forestry means less biodiversity.
Forest-dependent species such as certain birds cannot survive without dead and old trees. Removing trees, branches, roots, and deadwood from the forest for biomass eradicates habitat, including nesting and breeding grounds, for thousands of bird species. Food these birds rely on, such as insects, fish, and aquatic invertebrates, are also diminished. The tree plantations which often replace biodiverse forests do not support the same range of wildlife as forests which have trees of different species, ages, and dead wood. Once a forest has been clearcut, it takes decades, if not centuries, before it can regrow to recover its original level of ecosystem productivity.
Impacts on climate
Biomass is often described as a clean, renewable, sustainable fuel and a better alternative to coal for producing electricity. But science shows that forest biomass produces higher carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels. Forest biomass is expected to increase carbon emissions for 35-100 years after burning. We need reductions in greenhouse gas emissions now – not in one hundred years. The time lag associated with biomass is simply not compatible with realistic climate goals.