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Biomass is billed as a “clean” alternative to coal. US forest communities disagree

As countries wean themselves off coal, the forests that are meeting surging demand for wood pellets are coming under strain.

By Philippa Nuttall

Ditching coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, is essential to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The world agreed at Cop26 in November 2021 to “phase down” use of the fossil fuel, and over 40 countries committed to wean themselves off coal by 2040. In Europe, the new German government recently advanced the date of the country’s coal phase-out, and the Czech Republic this month became the latest European country to announce a coal exit.

Policymakers continue to push biomass in the form of wood pellets as a necessary, and cleaner, alternative to coal. But anyone who has read Barkskins, the 2016 ecological saga from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Proulx, will understand the potentially devastating impacts of chopping down trees. The tome begins in 17th-century New France (modern day Canada) with colonists dismissing local concerns about the consequences of tampering with the forests. It tells a tale of deforestation, cultural obliteration and international commerce, involving violence and even murder as rival factions defend their territory and industry. 

The world has moved on in the last 400 years and no one is suggesting that fatal feuds or shady dealings play any part in today’s proceedings, but the basic concerns about logging remain the same, suggested Scot Quaranda from the Dogwood Alliance, an NGO in the US. He said that the wood pellet industry has a negative impact on forestry, biodiversity and the community.

The UK power station Drax is either a pinnacle of success or a recipe for disaster, depending on who you speak to. Having swapped coal for wood pellets, thanks to hefty government subsides, the power company deems itself the “largest decarbonisation project in Europe”. Drax staunchly defends its business model and environmental credentials. Its advocates back the age-old belief that burning trees is “carbon neutral”. Biomass is sustainable when pellets are made from low-quality, waste wood, residues or by-products from forest industries like furniture-making, they say, citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to back up their views.

Opponents suggest that such practices are not always respected, with whole trees ending up in the biomass food chain. They also question the carbon-neutral argument, insisting that the amount of carbon a forest can store is a complicated business involving much more than trees – for instance, the soil structure is disturbed when trees are cut down – and say the IPCC’s opinion is not so clear-cut. The provenance of the wood pellets is also controversial: much is shipped from forests in predominantly poor communities in the US.

Drax is the UK’s largest power plant and the biggest wood-burning power station in the world, and so naturally it attracts headlines. But many other, smaller plants are already using biomass, and as pressure grows to get rid of coal, countries around the world are investigating whether they too can burn wood instead of black gold. One company benefiting from this surge in interest is Enviva, the largest pellet manufacturer in the world. Its factories, and the forests from which the company sources its wood, are largely in states like Mississippi and Alabama in America’s Deep South or along the Gulf Coast towards Mexico.

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Portugal and Germany are two countries believed to be in talks with Enviva about using biomass to replace at least some of their coal. In November 2021, Portugal used up the last of its coal reserves and is now considering converting one of its power stations to run on biomass. “It seems difficult to see how there would be enough residual forest biomass in Portugal to feed this plant,” said Nuno Forner from Zero, a not-for-profit organisation. In Germany, “several power companies are in direct talks with Enviva about a switch from coal to biomass burning,” said Kenneth Richter, from the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (Nabu). He added that much of the wood would be imported. 

The trend is spreading beyond Europe’s borders. Since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has relied more heavily on fossil fuels. Now it is planning to turn to biomass, in a big way. At the end of 2021, Enviva and J-Power, the biggest coal-fired power generator in the country, signed a memorandum of understanding that would create a supply chain of five million tonnes of pellets. This is a staggering amount of wood, given that in 2020 the US exported 7.26 million tonnes of wood pellets in total.

“Japan has lots of older and inefficient coal plants that should be heading for retirement, but their owners are trying to extend their useful lives,” said Roger Smith from the NGO Mighty Earth. “We are concerned about the massive scale of Japan’s demand for biomass. The US south-east has a finite supply of wood that can be sustainably harvested. Foreign subsidies for biomass are distorting markets and risking increased clear-cuts of the remaining natural forests.”

While the very idea of shipping pellets from the US to burn in power stations in the UK or elsewhere else in the name of climate action may raise eyebrows, few consumers of this energy probably think twice about any local effects. “Over 75 per cent of wood pellet facilities are in environmental justice communities, with this figure rising to 100 per cent in North Carolina,” said Quaranda. These are typically “black communities with high levels of poverty and where people have little access to political power”.

Belinda Joyner is from Northampton, North Carolina, where nearly 60 per cent of inhabitants are black and over 20 per cent of the population lives in poverty. Her community feels it is a “dumping ground” where, because people are poor, wood pellet companies “think they can come and take advantage”, she told the New Statesman. Industry and decision-makers “don’t look at the future picture and harms. It isn’t all about dollars, but about health and the community.”

She cited concerns about childhood asthma and even increased risks of cancer, and said her community and others were suffering “environmental and racial injustice”. A study from 2018 found that inadequate controls for air pollutants known as volatile organic compounds from wood-pellet mills can cause smog and respiratory problems, and have been linked to cancer. Joyner also told of “one gentleman who has to wash his car every day and his house every three months” because of the dust from the wood pellet factories.

Enviva vehemently denies any such claims. “Biomass does not negatively impact local communities,” said a company spokesperson, and noted Enviva’s “strong track record” of creating jobs and its efforts to “empower local communities: we listen to our neighbours and if there are any specific concerns, we work to resolve and mitigate them promptly. We have not received any noise complaints with respect to our operations. Suggesting that our fully controlled plants present health risks or cause dust to our neighbours is false and there is no data or evidence to support such speculation.”

“Wood-pellet manufacturing is an industrial process, which means forest harvesting, carbon impacts, air pollution from trucks, and emissions of fine particulates and toxic pollutants like formaldehyde,” countered David Carr, general counsel with the Southern Environmental Law Center. The first Enviva wood-pellet factory came online in the American South in 2011, and since then the company has increased by 10 times the number of pellets it exports, operating 24 hours a day, he added.

Switching off the money tap of subsidies would likely end the industry’s growth. But doing this would make it harder, if not impossible, for countries to meet emissions-reduction targets in the short term unless countries seriously ratcheted up the construction of wind and solar farms and other clean energy solutions.

“Sustainable biomass has a vital role to play in the UK’s decarbonisation efforts and is an important part of the renewable energy mix, having generated 12.6 per cent of total electricity in 2020,” said a UK government spokesperson. In November 2021, the government published a policy statement setting the scene for a new new biomass strategy, which is expected to land “in late 2022”. Part of this process will be to review sustainability criteria and “better understand” potential domestic and international biomass stocks.

The EU will also theoretically open its biomass package and review its subsidies, but EU climate commissioner Frans Timmermans has likewise long insisted the bloc will fail to reach its emissions reduction pledges without burning wood.

“If the UK were to change course and acknowledge its mistakes, that would send a signal to new importers like Japan,” said Heather Hillaker from the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Forests should be storing carbon and we have other ways to produce energy like solar and wind, which are low cost,” continued Carr. “It takes decades for ecosystems to build themselves back up, recapture carbon and have inherent value.” 

But none of these arguments cut any ice with the biomass defenders. “Enviva is no more harming forests by sourcing sustainable wood fibre to produce biomass than the New Statesman is doing to produce hard-copy magazines,” said the spokesperson.

[See also: India’s path away from coal is irreversible, but paved with difficulties]

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