Wood Pellets…The New Coal

SEJ Conference 600
Dogwood Executive Director Danna Smith debates Seth Ginther, Executive Director of US Industrial Wood Pellet Association, at Southern Environmental Journalists Conference

You know you’ve effectively gotten the attention of the media when they ask you to speak on a panel about your campaign at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference. On September 7th, I hopped a plane to New Orleans to debate Seth Ginther, the Executive Director of the US Industrial Wood Pellet Association, in front of a roomful of journalists. Over the last few of years, coal burning power plants have been converted to burn wood pellets as a supposedly clean and renewable energy source.

The reality is that, like coal, wood pellets made from clearcut Southern forests are a dirty and destructive fuel that will actually accelerate climate change.

As my flight boarded, I wondered how my fellow panelist was going to defend his industry’s increasingly questionable claims that wood pellets provide a “sustainable, low carbon fuel” for generating electricity in Europe. Looking out the window of the plane on my flight, I had a bird’s eye view of Southern forests. For a brief moment, I imagined what it must be like to be that bird who, after a long and tiring flight from Canada on the way back to South America, discovers that the mature wetland forest it used to rely on as a safe haven has been laid flat. For years, bird experts have been urgently calling for greater protection of the South’s wetland forests, which have suffered tremendous degradation from industrial logging. I wondered how Seth was going to defend the South’s largest wood pellet exporter, Enviva’s, sourcing of wood from clearcut wetland forests as “sustainable.”

As I looked out on the horizon, I couldn’t help but notice the patchwork of clearcuts and fragmented forests across a broad landscape from Atlanta to New Orleans.

With the recent evidence from NASA of the rapid pace of forest cover loss from logging in the Southern US, how would Seth justify the rapid growth in wood pellet exports? At this critical moment in time when experts around the world are calling for greater protection of forests for their ability to purify water, prevent floods and protect us from climate change, how was he going to justify the skyrocketing demand his industry is placing on a resource already under tremendous stress?

Moreover, as the spokesperson for an industry whose very existence hinges on claims that wood pellets exported from Southern forests are a “low carbon” fuel alternative to fossil fuels, how was he was going to respond to the latest report released this summer by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which found that when it comes to carbon emissions, leaving trees in the forest is largely the best strategy?

The next day, Seth and I had a chance to chat before our panel. I had met Seth before at one of the industry’s conferences last year in Atlanta. Nice enough guy. Smart too. But as his industry comes under increasing scrutiny and more evidence surfaces, his job as defense council for the wood pellet industry is getting far more difficult.

Being a sharp lawyer, Seth defended his industry the best he could.

But, let’s face it: arguing that in order to protect forests we must clearcut them doesn’t pass the common sense test.

Professing that removing millions of tons of wood from the forest and burning it into the atmosphere reduces carbon emissions is a tough sell when yet another government report was just released providing direct evidence to the contrary. Asserting that there is more “forest cover” today in the South than in previous decades is a losing argument, when recently released satellite imagery shows the South as a major global hotspot for forest cover loss due to logging. Stating that no forest has been logged for wood pellets when the biggest player in the industry, Enviva, was exposed on the front-page of the Wall Street Journal and on the BBC News for buying wood from a clearcut 100-year-old wetland forests is just plain not true.

When I pointed out that the UK government recently admitted in the press that they have been wrong in assuming that the burning of trees is carbon neutral, Seth went on public record accusing me of not telling the truth, even though that fact is easily verifiable by this BBC News article. Accusing your critics of not telling the truth might be an old defense tactic, but it clearly backfired on him here since the facts (and the BBC) are on my side.

The wood pellet industry’s defense strategy is nothing new. We see it all the time. Coal and other fossil fuel companies, determined to defend the status quo and their investments, continue to state as fact that climate change is a hoax despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They continue to assert that their practices of extracting fuel out of the ground are “safe” and “sustainable” in the face of stark evidence to the contrary.

We know that facts and sound arguments alone aren’t enough to win campaigns.

We know what kind of public groundswell it took to earn women the right to vote and to end segregation. That’s why hundreds of thousands of people marched the streets of New York last weekend at the largest climate rally ever.

Peoples Climate March
Dogwood Alliance leading the movement for forest protection at the Peoples’ Climate March.

So, despite being on the right side of history, science and plain old common sense, the wood pellet industry’s rapid expansion across the US South continues, largely unabated. New investments are being made as I write this and taxpayer subsidies continue to flow freely. Just last month, North Carolina’s Governor publicly supported Enviva’s massive scale up of wood pellet exports from the state as “sustainable.”

Rolling back the financial and political momentum behind the wood pellet industry and the tremendous threat that it poses to forests and climate is going to take nothing short of a massive movement across the US South.

Every voice matters. Time is of the essence.

Join the growing movement to demand action on climate and protect Southern forests.

Take action now

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