The biomass wood pellet industry claims that they only use “waste” wood, like branches and stems, wood dust, and other byproducts of wood manufacturing called forestry residues. However, the investigations of media outlets and independent watchdogs reveal the truth about the supply chains for pellets. The wood pellet industry is just like any other wood manufacturing: it uses large clearcuts and whole trees to produce pellets. These wood pellets are then shipped across oceans to fuel dirty energy in the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, and even countries like Japan and South Korea. Billed as “renewable energy”, this industry’s wood pellet facilities are responsible for millions of tons of extra greenhouse gas emissions every year.
Maryland-based Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, makes and exports these wood pellets to utility companies in Europe like RWE in the Netherlands, Drax in the UK, and Orsted in Denmark. Independent media, government reports in the EU and the US, and the industry’s own reporting have confirmed Dogwood’s investigations. The South is the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets to be burned for biomass energy. These global markets for wood pellets are devastating US forests.
How Do We Know Where Wood Pellet Manufacturers Get Their Wood?
Every year, international media outlets like Channel 4, TV2, and Zembla have asked us to help with their own investigations into the “renewable” claims about biomass energy. These reporters follow logging trucks from clearcut sites directly to Enviva’s manufacturing facilities, where these trucks drop off literal tons of whole trees for processing. And each time, the reporters can’t believe the scale of the destruction, and neither can we. And still year after year, loggers continue to clearcut forests to feed the international demand for wood pellets.
There is also a lot of domestic interest in these practices. Leaders in investigative journalism, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Climate Central have all produced reports about logging for wood pellets. There’s even a documentary about wood pellets in the US.
Are wood pellets sustainable?
Burning wood to produce renewable energy is one of the oldest energy technologies out there. But, wood pellet plants are not sustainable. In the last decade or so, the wood pellet industry has grown from a niche enterprise into something that is deeply damaging to nearby communities. The carbon footprint of wood pellet mills is large, and continues to grow each year. The carbon released into the atmosphere will remain there for four decades or longer, contributing to climate change. Compared to burning coal, burning wood pellets releases up to 50% more carbon dioxide at the smokestack per kilowatt of energy produced. Burning trees and “low grade wood fiber” may look good on paper, but it’s awful in practice.
The “carbon neutrality” of wood pellets has been repeatedly debunked by scientists attempting to steer world governments in a more sustainable direction. To be truly carbon neutral, an energy source shouldn’t need to rely on offsets from forests. To burn wood pellets goes against decades of sound biological and ecological research into the climate and ecological impacts of the practice. Biomass sourcing has never been sustainable.
Don’t be fooled by certification programs, either. The Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) is one such certification program for woody biomass and biomass fuels that does more harm than good. The Sustainable Biomass Program was founded by biomass companies themselves. This is like the fox guarding the henhouse. Instead of listening to concerns from environmental nonprofits, the Sustainable Biomass Partnership greelights “renewable energy” that degrades forests across the US.
What about liquid fuels?
We don’t speak much about liquid fuels and their dedicated energy crops because the carbon implications of the woody biomass supply chain are so much more important. Woody biomass plants are impacting forests and communities right here in the United States.
The Impacts Of Logging For Wood Pellets
These investigations show a disturbing pattern where companies like Enviva harvest wood pellets from native hardwood forests in an area designated as a global biodiversity hotspot— all happening under the umbrella of “sustainable” sourcing standards. Enviva’s own website reports that hardwood makes up 53% of their source material. Their sustainability program reports harvest volumes which range up to 100% – far beyond normal quantities of “residues” or scrapwood.
In fact, the state of North Carolina recently advocated in their own official Clean Energy Plan that the large-scale use of North Carolina’s forests in foreign markets should be “challenged at the national and international level.” The official document even explicitly recognized that the wood pellet industry increases carbon emissions in the state from logging, processing, and transportation.
Plus, the energy efficiency of wood pellets is very low, and in some cases, is worse than fossil fuels. Energy production free of fossil fuels needs energy efficiency to avoid greenhouse gas emissions. The world should not be relying on fossil fuels, biomass fuel, or even natural gas for energy needs, when wind and solar are consistently dropping in price and increasing in efficiency.
The reality is that industrial scale use of biomass for energy is bad for our climate, forests, and local communities.
Sustainability policies for the harvesting of wood pellets cannot guarantee a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions within the time needed to fight climate change. Reports from world-renowned scientists have shown that burning biomass from forests for electricity creates more carbon dioxide emissions than burning coal and that increased carbon dioxide concentrations persist in the atmosphere for decades or more. Scientists have repeatedly argued against the use of bioenergy both domestically and internationally.
Countries looking to meet their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement and phase out coal must stop wasting scarce public resources subsidizing dirty and destructive biomass energy. Instead, we urge policymakers to redirect investments to genuinely zero-carbon energy sources.
Time matters. Placing an additional carbon load in the atmosphere for decades means permanent damages due to more rapid melting of glaciers, thawing of permafrost, and warming of oceans. At a critical moment when countries need to be “buying time” against climate change, biomass as an energy source amounts to “selling” the world’s limited time to combat it. New tree growth requires many decades, and not all trees even reach maturity because of drought, fire, insects, or land use conversion. Wood pellet producers like Enviva cannot guarantee that forests will be grown again.