Enviva, a giant in wood pellets, shifts tree-sourcing policy

Enviva, the largest industrial wood-pellet manufacturer in the world, launched what it calls an “enhanced and expanded global sourcing policy” last week in partnership with Earthworm Foundation, a non-profit that helps businesses reform their supply chains. The announcement came a few weeks after the publication of a report by FERN, in collaboration with The Weather Channel, spotlighting the company’s environmental practices. 

The updated policy—the result of two year’s work with Earthworm—is part of Enviva’s effort to “improve environmental performance.”

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. The wood is largely used to fuel electricity plants in what Enviva claims is a “carbon neutral” energy source.

In Enviva’s new policy, it committed to reforestation not only at the tract level, but at the landscape (or regional) level as well. And whereas it had previously pledged to avoid harvesting trees from high conservation value (HCV) bottomland forests, Enviva says it will now do so in certain upland HCV forests, too. Finally, the company plans to develop a satellite-based monitoring system this year to help third-party auditors verify harvest data submitted by landowners, and says it will “develop systems for reporting on progress” towards these goals.

“With the public implementation plans and progress reporting that accompany this policy, they are not only increasing their standards for sustainability, but for transparency as well,” said Bastien Sachet, CEO of the Earthworm Foundation.

Enviva has also partnered with the Alabama-based nonprofit Longleaf Alliance to restore longleaf pine forest areas surrounding its own pellet mills. According to Longleaf president Robert Abernethy, Enviva can provide a crucial market for nearby landowners pursuing longleaf savannah restoration projects, which often require clearing the hardwood undergrowth. If left as mulch on the ground, the remains can act as a dangerous fuel source and also prevent growth of necessary groundcover. But if sold to Enviva, the landowners can profit from the byproduct of the restoration process.

“We are providing a market for the landowner,” he says, “and that’s good because if he can’t sell that brush in a longleaf restoration project, he’s faced with trying to control it with herbicide, with fire, or mulching it for $300 or $400 an acre and leaving it on the ground.”

None of these updates acknowledge the company’s impact on global warming. Enviva continues to manufacture more than 3 million metric tons of wood pellets every year—most of it exported to Europe—under the assumption of carbon neutrality: the notion that any carbon released into the atmosphere during the burning of pellets is offset by the carbon sequestered by newly planted trees. As Dr. Bill Schlesinger, former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, previously told FERN, it’s “a question of timing.” When a tree is burned, its carbon is released immediately; when a new tree is planted, it won’t sequester the same amount of carbon for several decades, until it reaches the age at which the last tree was harvested. Given the current climate crisis, Schlesinger and scores of other scientists question whether the planet has that much time to spare.

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

Though Abernethy says the Longleaf Alliance “isn’t involved in the carbon neutrality debate,” he repeated an attitude espoused by Enviva and often criticized by opponents of biomass: “If you can’t sell the trees on your property, then those trees have no value.” It’s an argument, opponents say, that ignores the important work of carbon sequestration. In a release for Earthworm, Sachet acknowledges the debate over biomass, but says “it’s not a black and white situation.”

“I think the public should be very weary of commitments that continue to ignore the leading forest carbon science, the on-the-ground evidence, and the warnings of the IPCC, that are saying things need to shift,” says Adam Colette, program director for the Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based environmental group that launched a public campaign against biomass in 2013. “When an organization like Earthworm works with Enviva, if they’re not acknowledging the problem, then the solutions they’re providing are not going to address the issues at hand.”

According to Colette, Enviva’s announcement is simply “the latest act in the ongoing green charade to cover up the destructive impacts of their dirty industry.”

“It’s a PR effort in the sense that it’s meant to distract us from the current problems of large scale industrial logging for forest, climate, and communities of the U.S. South,” he says. “You’re still cutting and burning forests when we are in a climate emergency.”

Note: Updated June 13, 2019 to correct spelling of Adam Colette.