#19. European Demand for Biomass Energy Propels Destruction of US Forests

by Project Censored
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Driven by demand in European Union countries, the southern United States is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of the wood pellets used to produce biomass energy, Danna Smith reported for Truthout in September 2020. Despite popular beliefs that solar and wind power are its main sources of renewable energy, the European Union (EU) sources nearly 60 percent of its renewable energy from biomass. Championed as a renewable source of energy, biomass energy uses plants, wood, and waste materials as sources of heating or power. However, as Smith reported, in many European countries the carbon costs of imported wood are not considered. As a result, the true costs of biomass energy are not widely understood.

As Smith explained in her article, many European nations, including the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Denmark, are increasingly relying on biomass electricity, with the unintended consequence of “speeding up carbon emissions, pollution and forest destruction.” The shift has led many to see forests as fuel, encouraging the cutting of timber for the production of wood pellets.

The deforestation that began in Europe has now arrived in the United States, as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) documented in a June 2019 report, “Global Markets for Biomass Energy are Devastating U.S. Forests.” According to the NRDC report, Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, engages in logging practices that have ravaged “iconic” wetlands forests in the southwest United States to produce pellets that are shipped to utility companies such as Drax Power in the United Kingdom and Ørsted in Denmark.

Anticipating this crisis, in January 2018, a group of 784 scientists warned the EU Parliament that cutting down forests for bioenergy increases carbon pollution. Biomass energy releases more carbon per unit of energy generated than coal or gas release, they reported. The scientists also warned that logging degrades forests as a natural form of flood control.

The “voracious European demand” for wood pellets has put forests and communities in the southern United States at increased risk of toxic air pollution and catastrophic flooding, Smith reported. In recent years, the southern coastal plain that includes North and South Carolina, southern Georgia and Alabama, and northern Florida, has been subjected to “some of the most devastating and costly flooding events in the world,” Smith reported, noting that these events have had “disproportionate impacts to low-income, rural communities of color.”

Many of the communities most affected by the devastation are now fighting back. In North Carolina, for example, local leaders and residents coordinated to oppose plans by Enviva to expand production at three of its facilities in that state. In Alabama a similar coalition formed to oppose Enviva’s plans to construct a new wood pellet production facility in Epes, Alabama, the first of four such plants the company hopes to establish in the state.

In May 2020 the European Union announced that it would reassess its biomass policies as part of its broader biodiversity action plan. As Smith reported, this reassessment could lead to the discontinuation of the use of wood as a source of EU biomass energy, and it might also lead to more accurate accounting for carbon emissions from imported biomass sources.

This issue has received little in the way of recent corporate news coverage. Credit is due to the New York Times for publishing an in-depth April 19, 2021 article by Gabriel Popkin and Erin Schaff that explored the impact of wood pellet production for export to Europe on one community in North Carolina. The article accurately described the forces driving Europe’s demand for pellets and noted that “[m]any scientists have long been skeptical of biomass’s climate benefits” because the policies European nations have adopted to combat climate change “fail to account for the carbon losses caused by cutting down trees to burn them.” But even Popkin and Schaff’s excellent article engaged in a bit of false balance by providing a platform for specious arguments from Enviva’s in-house scientists about why burning pellets should be “considered carbon neutral.” Sadly, Popkin and Schaff’s article appears to be the lone substantive corporate media report on this topic since at least 2015.

By contrast, environmental news sites have devoted considerable space to analyzing the burgeoning wood pellet industry in the Southeast, the factors driving its growth, and the severe climatic repercussions of burning wood as an energy source. For instance, in July 2020, Saul Elbein wrote an in-depth account for environmental news outlet Mongabay of Enviva’s wood pellet plants and their likely environmental consequences. On February 15, 2021, Mongabay followed up Elbein’s article with a report from Justin Catanoso about hundreds of scientists and economists calling on the countries of the world not to burn forests as fuel. A few weeks later, Mongabay published an article by Catanoso about a move by the Netherlands to limit subsidies for “biomass-for-heat” plants. It is worth noting that both Danna Smith’s Truthout article and the Mongabay series predate Popkin and Schaff’s New York Times piece, though the coverage provided by the independent outlets went unmentioned in the Times.

Danna Smith, “Europe Drives Destruction of US Forests in the Name of Fighting Climate Change,” Truthout, September 21, 2020.

Student Researcher: Tai Lam (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Ford (Sonoma State University)

Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.