The Loophole: How American forests fuel the EU’s appetite for ‘green’ energy

The smoke billows like cream in coffee off Lebanon Church road, above the pine stands and winter fallow, a sharp palette of blue and green and white. Heavy with trees and scraps from the surrounding forests of Northampton County, the trucks come and go all day long, downshifting here just before the Methodist  church and its small white belfry, the whine and croak of their diesel engines splitting the quiet of this once-peaceful corner of North Carolina.

At the end of the lane, a company called Enviva — the “en” for environment, the “viva” for “life” — processes trees and scraps to make more than 500,000 metric tons of tiny, compressed wood pellets every year, nearly all of it trucked to its port facility in Chesapeake, Virginia, and bound — like the product of more than 20 other pellet mills in the America South — for Europe. Once a merely residential product, fueling wood stoves and backyard smokers, wood pellets now power massive electric utilities in countries like the UK, where the government has subsidized the transition from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. In 2015, the Drax power station alone, the largest in the UK, generated enough electricity from its “biomass” units to power 4.1 million homes, or 3 percent of the country’s entire energy needs.

Enviva’s Northampton plant powered up in 2013, four years after the European Union published its omnibus Renewable Energy Directive and began promoting woody biomass — chiefly wood pellets — as a so-called “carbon neutral” energy source akin to wind and solar. Quickly exhausting its own domestic timber reserves, the EU looked to the United States for more, making it the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world. Concentrated primarily in the American Southeast, home to 40 percent of the country’s private timberland and recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot, the industry is growing bigger all the time. Between 2012 and 2016, annual wood pellet exports from the U.S. tripled, from 1.7 to 4.9 million metric tons. With new markets expanding in Asia and elsewhere, those numbers are expected to grow.

Hidden from view near the back of the Northampton facility, behind the conveyor belts and the jungle of steel pipes and girders, behind the young cedars planted around the perimeter, behind the lot of idle trailers waiting to be loaded up with more pellets, the trees and limbs are stacked like matchsticks in long, parallel rows. According to the Rachel Carson Institute, Enviva alone — which currently owns and operates seven plants in the southeastern United States — is responsible for clearcutting 50 acres of southern forestland every day, much of it a mix of hardwoods critical for wildlife habitat and absorbing the carbon dioxide rapidly warming the planet.

Given the torrent of dire climate forecasts, many predicting catastrophe if global warming climbs two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the notion of biomass as a “carbon-neutral” energy source has come increasingly under fire from both the environmental and scientific communities. And the mushrooming industry has triggered other unforeseen consequences — none factored into the arcane calculations about carbon neutrality — for the communities nearby, many of them already disadvantaged.

Unlike the pellets themselves, opponents say, the benefits of biomass are hardly so cut and dried.

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At its core, the argument for wood pellets is simple enough. Every day, the combustion of fossil fuels — be it the gas in your car or the coal powering your local electric utility — releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that prevent the earth from ridding itself of the sun’s radiation. According to the EPA, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the last 150 years is almost entirely the result of human activity.

Trees and other biological sources such as grasslands and peat bogs do the opposite, acting as a carbon “sink.” They feed off the CO2, filtering it from the atmosphere and storing it in shoots and leaves and the soil itself. Forests in the United States currently offset 13 percent of the country’s fossil fuel emissions. When the amount of carbon sequestered in this way is equal to the amount of carbon released, “carbon parity” has been achieved. So long as trees are replanted at the same rate they’re harvested, proponents argue, burning them in the form of wood pellets doesn’t add to the growing carbon debt. Instead, they claim, biomass is “carbon neutral,” erasing its own footprint as it marches forward. But as pellet mills began to sprout across the American Southeast and companies like Drax in the UK began investing millions of taxpayer dollars to transition from coal to biomass — the carbon neutral theory quickly took on water.

Enviva’s wood pellet factory near Garysburg, North Carolina. Photo by George Steinmetz.

Critics like Dr. Bill Schlesinger, former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, calls it “a question of timing.” When the wood pellets are burned, he says, the carbon stored in them is released immediately. Even if the equivalent amount of forest is instantly replanted, it won’t achieve carbon parity until the trees reach the age at which the last stand was harvested; for fast-growing loblolly pine, which makes up roughly 35 percent of Enviva’s feedstock, that means roughly 25 to 50 years. In the meantime, the increased carbon in the atmosphere is trapping more and more heat, quickening the pace of global warming.

Companies like Enviva push back, claiming that this argument ignores the reality of modern forestry. According to Dr. Jennifer Jenkins, Enviva’s vice president and chief sustainability officer, those outside the industry often try to simplify the equation “for one small person to wrap their mind around” by approaching biomass on a stand-by-stand, or plot-by-plot, basis.

But that’s not how commercially grown forests are managed, she says. Most are harvested on a rotational basis in order to avoid a gap in the wood supply. “For every acre in the southeast U.S. that is harvested, 49 acres are re-growing simultaneously in the exact same year.”

Critics counter that every tree should account for itself. When a tree is harvested, the carbon it once stored is eventually released — be it at the smokestack or via decomposition on the ground — regardless of whether another tree down the road has been planted. That particular tree was counted on to continue absorbing carbon, to contribute to the existing carbon sink. “In essence, it’s like saying, ‘I don’t have to go on a diet, because my neighbor has decided they’re going to cut eating their ice cream,’” says Sami Yassa, a senior scientist with the Climate & Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The debate doesn’t just pit industry against environmentalists. It has also roiled the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board since 2011, when it was first tasked with reviewing a framework for the carbon accounting of biomass. Schlesinger served on the board at the time, as did Dr. Madhu Khanna, an environmental economist at the University of Illinois. Though they disagree on methodology — whether to account for carbon emissions at the stand level, as Schlesinger would have it, or at a larger landscape level, as Khanna would — neither is willing to declare biomass unequivocally carbon neutral, and that was true of the board as a whole. “It’s not that it is or it isn’t,” Khanna says. “The answer is somewhere in the middle.”

Given this, the board was dismayed by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision last April to plow forward anyway. Most perplexingly, in labeling biomass categorically carbon neutral, he even cited the board’s internal disagreement as justification for the new policy. Khanna doesn’t know what impact Pruitt’s decision might have, she says, “but what’s more disturbing is the fact that it totally dismisses the science.” For now, it seems, the debate over carbon accounting in the biomass industry has reached an impasse.

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A further wrinkle in the argument is that not all trees are the same. Calculating the pros and cons of wood pellets depends not only on whether the trees are replanted and given time to grow, but on where and how and what kind of wood is used. Companies like Enviva and Drax, which now operates three of its own mills in the South, often promote their use of mill residues like sawdust or wood chips and what they call “low-grade wood” or “waste wood.” Most often, this comes from young or deformed trees removed during commercial thinnings, a practice employed to bolster the growth of higher-value trees.

“They’ve made up these terms like ‘residual trees,’ or their other favorite, ‘waste wood,’ which has no clear definition,” says Derb Carter, director of the Chapel Hill office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “But they’ve tried to label their sourcing as generally what I would call trees that would not be utilized for something else, which is still ignoring the fact that they’re live trees. All the carbon implications are the same, and they would continue to grow and accumulate carbon and benefit the environment if they were allowed to.”

Regardless of whether the trees are young or deformed, the majority come from standing forests, often hardwoods that take longer to regrow and host far greater biodiversity than the monoculture of loblolly pine typically found in commercial forests. In an open letter to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, Schlesinger and more than 100 other scientists estimated that if Enviva was to meet its production capacity of 1.89 million metric tons of wood pellets in North Carolina and Virginia, it would have to log at least 135 acres of forestland every day.

Even at that, Enviva currently can’t meet demand. According to Rebecca Heaton, group head of sustainability and policy at Drax, the “primary driver” of its decision to open its own mills in Louisiana and Mississippi “was to speed up the process of pellet mill construction and development.”

According to the Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based environmental group, only after it began its own investigation into Enviva’s logging practices did the company admit to sourcing whole trees. Still, Enviva cautions against such a uniform description. “Where there is a truck with what looks to be whole trees, they may or may not be,” Jenkins says. “They’re all going to be low-quality trees. Whether they’re tops or not we won’t know. They all show up.”

Environmental groups have also called attention to a major loophole in the EU’s carbon accounting method. Following guidelines adopted by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the EU directs member states to report emissions during the trees’ harvest — as opposed to their burning — to avoid double counting. This formula works well if everyone plays by the same rules, but the United States, which never ratified the Protocol, does not.

“The U.S. is not accounting for emissions from harvesting the biomass, and the UK is not accounting for emissions from burning it,” says David Carr, general counsel for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The result is that a utility like Drax can burn millions of tons of imported wood pellets, and emit 11.7 million tons of CO2 annually from that combustion, and it will account for none of those emissions.”

The carbon ledger also misses what scientists and environmental economists call the “lifecycle emissions” of the industry: the fuel used in replanting, fertilizing, tilling, trucking to and from the forests, the natural gas used in processing the wood pellets, the diesel used to ship those pellets thousands of miles overseas. But it’s perhaps these lifecycle emissions that have the most immediate impact, especially for those who live in the shadow of the industry.

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Those who lived in the rural South long before the pellet mills arrived, many of them communities of color, are those now dealing with the consequences: the logging trucks barreling up and down their once-quiet county roads, the thin film of yellow dust they say coats their vehicles and windowsills, the low hum always emanating from the plant, the vague yet persistent threat of airborne pollutants and their associated physical symptoms.

Sixty-six-year-old Belinda Joyner, a retired teachers assistant in Northampton County, lives just a few miles south of the Enviva plant. Joyner was nine when her grandmother died and her mother moved the family to New Jersey. But she told her mom even then, “When I get grown, I’m going back home. Peaceful living.”

Belinda Joyner, at the front door of her home, is worried about the impact of the Enviva plant and other industrial facilities nearby. Photo by George Steinmetz.

She moved back to the pine stands and patient skies of Northampton County nearly 20 years later, into a tidy white prefab in a modest cul de sac off Highway 46, between Garysburg and Gaston. If life here were as simple as she’d imagined, she says, she would spend each morning with the squirrels. She would sneak out the back door, take a seat on her porch and watch them frolic as the sun crawled over Gin Loop Road and the peanut fields beyond.

Instead, Joyner has found herself increasingly mired in the battle to keep her family’s homeplace unsullied by the seemingly relentless forces of industry. There have been plans for a $70 million hazardous waste incinerator, a liquid fertilizer plant, two landfills for coal ash, and the completion of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a joint project between several major utility companies that would cut across Northampton County carrying natural gas fracked from West Virginia. “Basically everything that comes, they want to put it in a community of color,” Joyner says. So she is constantly racing from one public meeting to the next, working with regional environmental groups like Clean Water for North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and the Dogwood Alliance, which launched a campaign in 2013 to warn both policymakers and the public against the dangers of biomass, and ultimately to stem the growth of the industry.

Wood pellet mills have an especially poor track record. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Justice, mills in the United States are 50 percent more likely to be sited in “environmental justice communities” similar to Northampton County, where 57 percent of the residents are African American and 24 percent live below the poverty line. Most who live near the pellet mills are simply fighting to keep the lights on, to keep food on the table and gas in the tank. The median income in Northampton County was just over than $33,000 in 2017, barely half the national median. Despite the efforts of so many environmental groups, many here still don’t know what biomass is, or what the mills produce, or who is ultimately using it. There’s little talk about climate change, even less about carbon neutrality. Industry of any kind is simply part of the landscape.

Charles Robinson lives in a small doublewide just a few hundred yards from the plant, separated from it by little more than a narrow dirt lane and a tall stand of pine. He’s a North Carolina native, a short man with a slow gait and a denim jacket who grew up surrounded by trees and can tell, he says, when they’re “cooking” hardwood versus pine. “It’s bad for your health, I can tell you that straight up,” he says, voice raspy. “You walk out of that door some mornings you can hardly breathe.”

Charles Robinson, a retiree on disability who lives just behind the back fence of the Enviva wood pellet factory. Photo by George Steinmetz.

Last April, the Environmental Integrity Project, a D.C.-based environmental watchdog group, published a report that largely validates Robinson’s concern. After combing through federal and state records for 21 wood pellet mills currently exporting to Europe, the study found that, in 2017, more than half of the plants “either failed to keep emissions below legal limits or failed to install required pollution controls.” In addition to 3.1 million tons of greenhouse gases, the report stated, these plants annually emit thousands of tons of hazardous air pollutants, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) linked to cancer, breathing difficulties, damage to the central nervous system, and more.

It’s the responsibility of states to meet federal standards under the Clean Air Act, but the report blames North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality itself for consistently failing to do so. The report also contends that the Enviva plants lack control technology to reduce VOC’s or hazardous air pollutants, making them the dirtiest in the industry. The Northampton plant alone releases 377 tons of VOCs every year, the study claims, well beyond the 250-ton limit for major air polluters under federal law.

The DEQ calls the report “inaccurate,” and insists that it “uses permitting and compliance actions to enforce the federal and state rules” and that the division “performs unannounced inspections and reviews of the records … to verify that facilities are complying with the terms of the permit.” Nevertheless, because Enviva originally estimated it would emit less than 250 tons of VOCs and carbon monoxide annually — the point at which a secondary application would then be required — the state allowed construction of its Northampton plant to proceed without public notice.

Enviva’s wood pellet factory near Garysburg, North Carolina

Enviva, meanwhile, points to the economic benefits it has brought to the community. The gains “sort of speak for themselves,” Jenkins says. Its $60 million Northampton facility created 87 full-time jobs and another 200 during the initial construction phase, and according to a study it commissioned with Chmura Economics in 2013, the plant contributes nearly $145 million to the county every year in direct, indirect, and induced benefits.

In fact, beyond easy rail and highway access and proximity to forest resources, Enviva says it chooses to site in these disadvantaged areas to provide exactly these benefits.

Those like Joyner and other opponents of biomass in Northampton County don’t often quibble with the economic benefits the industry has brought. It’s the accompanying pollution and health risks they’re concerned about, the disruption of their quiet rural lives. “In my book,” Jenkins says, “there ought to be absolutely no opposition to the work that we do. But maybe we also realize it’s going to be really hard to make everybody happy.” Asked repeatedly about its community outreach efforts to address these concerns, Enviva chose not to comment.

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Manufacturers like Enviva continue to process millions of tons of wood pellets every year, and European power utilities like Drax continue to burn them, all of it branded generally as a green endeavor. And the industry is still growing, with major new markets opening in Asia and elsewhere. Beginning in late 2022, Enviva will supply roughly 1.5  million metric tons of wood pellets every year to Japan in contracts expected to last at least 15 years. Enviva’s fourth plant in North Carolina is slated to begin operation later this year in Hamlet, another community with minority and poverty rates well above the state average, and two of its existing plants — including Northampton — are expanding.

But as the debate drags on about whether wood pellets are really carbon neutral, and how many decades it may take to reach that desirable goal, scientists like Schlesinger worry that the world doesn’t have that much time to spare. At just one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the planet is already experiencing rising sea levels and an increase in catastrophic weather events like hurricanes, flooding, and drought. According to a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow at the current rate, global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees as early as 2030, with the effects growing worse as the mercury climbs. And though holding warming to this limit is technically possible, the report says, it will require “rapid and far-reaching” changes that most countries haven’t even begun to consider.

Increasingly, scientists and environmental advocates say that biomass is not one of these changes, and that burning carbon-capturing trees is a step in the wrong direction, especially when far greener technologies like wind and solar are available. In fact, government subsidies for biomass — and declarations like Pruitt’s about its carbon neutrality — may actually draw resources away from continued development in wind, solar, and other renewable technologies. Whether or not it’s cleaner than coal, they say, biomass simply carries too much baggage.

“Time matters…,” wrote nearly 800 scientists in a letter to the EU Parliament in January 2018. “At a critical moment when countries need to be ‘buying time’ against climate change, this approach amounts to ‘selling’ the world’s limited time to combat it.”

Top photo: Enviva’s wood pellet factory near Garysburg, North Carolina. Photo by George Steinmetz.

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