Could EU Biomass Investigation Signal Relief for Southern Forests?

Enviva facility in Southampton, VA: Massive piles of whole hardwood trees burned for electricity in Europe - funded by UK subsidies.
Enviva facility in Southampton, VA: Massive piles of whole hardwood trees burned for electricity in Europe – funded by UK subsidies.

The European Union (EU) Commission recently announced an investigation into the state aid provided for the world’s largest forest destroyer for electricity, Drax. The taxpayer dollars that the UK is providing Drax to convert to burning Southern US forests for electricity is a big reason why this destructive industry is moving us backwards away from a healthy, truly sustainable future.

Since industrial biomass exploded onto the scene in the Southern US, the industry has attempted to paint itself as one that fits into the framework and culture of the traditional logging industry. They want the public to see a symbiotic relationship with an already existing industry. They want us to believe that our precious resources are simply being managed efficiently, and no impacts will be felt by the forests, communities or even the timber markets.

The image of a  mutually beneficial relationship between biomass and the traditional logging industry is a complete illusion.

Competition with the Existing Forest Products Industry

At a public event, I heard a representative from the paper industry say,

“The biomass industry is not taking our waste or residues. What they’re taking is our product. We don’t produce waste.”

Aren’t we supposed to think that wood pellets solely consist of “waste” and “residues”? The pressure on our precious forests is increasing.

Why would our traditional wood products industries, like the paper industry, be so upset about wood pellets? Due to the false classification of biomass as a carbon neutral form of energy, enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars are being directed towards the biomass industry. A recent study by RISI commissioned by the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) found that UK wood pellet subsidies distort the US market for wood fiber.

According to our partners at BiofuelWatch, Drax’s renewable electricity subsidies in 2014 were equivalent to 79% of their annual gross profits! With conversion of a third unit (which is currently under investigation) and their coal subsidies, Drax can look forward to over $930 million every year. That’s over $2.5 million per day in taxpayer money.

These grossly distorted subsidies allow pellet producers to pay up to 5 times the market price. Talk about incentiviZing the destruction of our forests!

These funds are subsidizing an industry that takes the raw materials used by our traditional wood products industries. This makes it harder for traditional wood products industries to operate, drives up the cost of timber products and adds fewer jobs to the regional economy. Not to mention, the biomass industry pumps a whole heckuva lot of carbon into the atmosphere, which is the opposite of the intention of renewable energy subsidies.

We must work towards a truly sustainable timber market.

A timber market that provides sustainable feedstocks for our traditional industries, protects Endangered Forests and incentivizes landowners to manage native forests for increased carbon storage and conservation.

Delaying the Just Transition to a Truly Renewable Energy Future

In our work, we travel all across the Southern region, and in each of these states, a majority of people are fed up with profit-driven companies coming in, extracting their natural resources and leaving nothing but a degraded landscape. From mountaintop removal coal mining to unsustainable industrial logging and even the creation of landfills, we know this story all too well here in the South. More and more residents are asking Dogwood Alliance to support efforts to push back proposed biomass facilities. Many residents see this as an environmental justice concern.

Community Members in Panama City, FL who are fighting biomass incineration facilities, wood pellet manufacturing facilities, and wood pellet export terminals.
Community Members in Panama City, FL who are fighting biomass incineration facilities, wood pellet manufacturing facilities, and wood pellet export terminals.

Allowing these massive subsidies to flow into the pockets of forest destroyers like Drax, Europe has incentivized this unacceptable status-quo for rural populations and delayed a necessary and inevitable transition to a clean energy economy. We must prioritize investments in energy efficiency and truly clean energy for communities recovering from dirty industries as we move toward a brighter energy future. Equity must be at the center of a just transition to a clean economy. Biomass and the subsidies driving it should not be part of this solution.

This is a new era in which corporations that see forests as a profitable product aren’t the only ones that decide how our Southern Forests are valued.

These short-sighted corporations are not the only stakeholders in our forests. A new vision must be inclusive of our local communities and our wildlife. This vision must value clean air, clean water and safe communities.

We face incredible problems – global climate change, mass species extinction and polluted fresh water resources.

Governments can no longer fund the profit-over-planet strategies of companies and industry associations.

It’s too risky to incentivize industrial-scale biomass and let industries with a vested interest decide what’s sustainable. It is a part of what’s gotten us here in the first place – economic justification that only benefits a few. Headed down this road of incentivizing industrial scale biomass, while listening to what the industry believes is sustainable – is too risky.

In the South, we’ve learned this lesson the hard way. We can’t afford to let Europe take us down this path again.

The Our Forests Aren’t Fuel campaign applauds the EU Commission for investigating the UK state-aid given to Drax and urges them to put an end to funding this destructive industry.

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