European Demand for Biomass Energy Propels Destruction of US Forests

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Driven by demand in European Union countries, the southern US is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of the wood pellets used to produce biomass energy, Dana Smith reported for Truthout in September 2020. Despite popular beliefs that solar and wind power are its main sources of renewable energy, in the European Union (EU) nearly sixty percent of renewable energy comes 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 appreciated.

As Smith wrote, many European nations, including the UK, Netherlands, and Denmark, have adopted biomass electricity, with the unintended consequences 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 US, as the Natural Resources Defense Council 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 US to produce pellets that are shipped to utility companies such as Drax Power in the UK and Ørsted in Denmark.

Anticipating this crisis, in January 2018, 784 scientists warned the EU Parliament that burning forest biomass increases carbon pollution. Biomass energy releases more carbon than coal or gas per unit of energy generated, 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 US at increased risk to 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 subject to “some of the most costly and devastating flooding events in the world,” Smith reported, noting that these events have had “disproportionate impacts to low-income, rural communities of color.”

Many of these communities are now fighting back. In North Carolina, for example, local leaders and affected residents coordinated to oppose—and ultimately block—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 Alabama.

In May 2020, the EU 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 elimination of

controversial biomass sources such as wood, 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. In fact the most recent establishment report on the topic appears to date back to 2015, when the Washington Post published a report that largely emphasized the economic benefits of logging in the US to meet European demands for biomass energy. The Post’s report emphasized how local land owners were benefitting from selling forest land to timber operations, and how the forests being cut down were at low risk of affecting climate change. The article did not address the concerns made clear by Smith’s report for Truthout.

Source: Dana 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)