The Wood Pellet Industry: A Roadblock on the Path of Progress
Originally published on the Rachel Carson Council website.
C.S. Lewis famously remarked,
“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road [...] the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
Right now, the United States is walking down a road of false progress.
It is a road lined with pine plantations, scrappy pellets of wood, and the sweet-smelling promise of a new “carbon neutral” energy strategy: burning forests for energy.
The southeastern United States is facing a deforestation crisis under our noses. The roots of this crisis come from the harvest of biomass, or wood pellets, across the states of North Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
If you’ve never heard of “biomass” or “wood pellets,” you’re not alone. These terms don’t usually ring a bell to even the most ardent environmentalists.
Biomass is any organic matter that can be burned as fuel to generate energy. This could include crops, landfill gas, garbage, alcohol fuels, or wood. The Southeastern United States focuses heavily on woody biomass (wood pellets), the two biggest wood pellet producers being Enviva and Drax.
Wood pellets come to exist through several carbon-intensive processes. Forests in the Southeastern United States are logged, chopped and dried into paperclip-size pellets, and shipped overseas to Europe to be burned as a “carbon neutral” fuel source in coal-fired power plants. Their “carbon neutral” label, which I consistently nestle in air quotes, comes from a carbon accounting loophole that underestimates carbon debt and allows the U.N. to move forward with importing wood pellets.
The biomass industry has already harvested over one million acres of forest in the United States—and they’ve done so at a rate four times faster than the logging of South American rainforests.
In spite of these alarming statistics, if you’re solutions-hungry like me, you might find it tempting to rationalize woody biomass as “carbon neutral” anyway. At a logical first glance, it almost makes sense. Cut down a tree, chop it up, burn it for fuel, and replant a tree in its place. Simple. And surely biomass, with its eco-friendly prefix, must be synonymous with sustainability?
No matter how good biomass looks on paper—and how convenient of a fallacy it may be for smashing renewable energy goals—we cannot fudge the numbers any longer.
In reality, burning wood pellets releases 65% more CO2 than coal per megawatt hour, and the production process itself utilizes fossil fuels, releases greenhouse gasses, creates air pollution, diminishes forest biodiversity, threatens wildlife, contaminates water, endangers human health, and destroys our natural defenses against extreme weather events. Our renewable energy goals only matter if they are rooted in facts and not mathematical fantasies. We can’t cheat climate change.
When examined closely, the logical allure of biomass falls apart on three premises:
The promise of using only “waste wood” is misleading. While the industry originally planned to draw only from discarded sources (stray branches, rotten tree limbs, waste wood, etc.), the industry has turned to clear-cutting forests to keep up with demand.
Forest quality diminishes when trees are cut and regrown. Just because biomass producers promise to replant harvested trees doesn’t mean the carbon equals out. The biodiversity and multi-species spread of older growth forests is not instantaneously replaced by whatever monoculture saplings are planted in their place.
Time is of the essence. It doesn’t make sense to rely on tree regrowth when we are dealing with a time-sensitive climate crisis. Plus, we don’t have time to properly mitigate biomass facility pollution—and facilities are 50% more likely to be located in environmental justice communities.
Finally, when it comes to energy justice, language matters. In lieu of the word “biofuels,” many local communities and Indigenous Peoples have chosen to rename the substances “agrofuels.” Why should an extractive, polluting industry co-opt the root “bio,” meaning life?
Rethinking our language also means rethinking progress as a whole. Grassroots community groups such as Dogwood Alliance organize with frontline communities to raise awareness on biomass. Progress also means accountability: in April , over 150 environmental groups, including Dogwood, signed onto a letter urging the Nature Conservancy to stop supporting woody biomass as a climate solution.
Many of these groups are based in the South—and are well aware that southern forests are often ignored in favor of the charismatic, coniferous species lining the West Coast and Pacific Northwest. Why save a loblolly pine when I can save a Redwood? Recognizing that aesthetic discrimination hinders true progress, groups like Dogwood are making a special effort to highlight the beauty and cruciality of southern forests.
While going to college in North Carolina does not make me a Southerner by any means, I always feel a subtle sense of pride take root in my heart with every hour I spend in its forested countrysides. I fondly remember driving down to Duke on fall afternoons, watching the highway’s canopy transform from Maryland oaks into thick Carolina pines, as James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” plays in the background.
I cannot not help but romanticize every forest, from the dying saltwater ghost forests I studied on the North Carolina coast to the lush woodlands I ran through in the heart of Duke Forest. Sometimes, I sit for hours. Birds sing. The trees tower over me like cathedrals. In those moments, I understand why artists and poets like Robert Frost fixate on woodlands, why they are as alive as I am, and why it is against the will of our planet for them to become industrialized fuel-orchards.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
Policymakers and energy specialists are finally beginning to acknowledge an uncomfortable but rectifiable truth: we’ve chosen the wrong road.
Normally, I would use these pages to push for truly renewable energy sources. I would write about expanding community solar or building out offshore wind to propel us down a road of justice and innovation, lined with (intact) woods that are lovely, dark, and deep.
But instead, I am urging policymakers to do the one thing that must happen first.
Turn around and be a leader. Every step back towards the junction is a step of progress toward the energy future we deserve—one that is free from clear-cutting, short-cutting, and polluting integrity. End subsidies for biomass. Discontinue the “carbon neutral” language on wood pellets. Deny permits for new biomass facilities, and any related logging operations that destroy the beauty of our Southern forests.
The time for an about-face is now. Though we have miles to go on the road to renewable energy, each step in the right direction will pave a safer and kinder future for our children.
RCC Biomass Report 1: Clear Cut
RCC Biomass Report 2: Bad Business
Take the Stand4Forests Pledge—an alliance of people, organizations, elected officials, scientists, faith leaders, and community organizers urging our leaders to keep forests standing.
Sign Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC)’s “Cut Carbon Not Forests” Petition to Biden or Dogwood Alliance’s Petition to NC Governor Roy Cooper
Tune into Dogwood Alliance’s Biomass Community Video Series