Sustainability Magic, Carbon Confusion, and Bigger is Definitely Not Better

In late July, the Pellet Fuels Institute held their annual conference in Asheville, NC. Biomass industry representatives, including the biggest enemies to Southern forests, Drax and Enviva, gathered to discuss, network, and celebrate their industry.

I attended the conference, and here are three things that I learned:

1. The biomass industry is operating under an antiquated definition of sustainability.

It’s no secret that our world is facing challenging environmental problems. The well-documented and scientifically proven threats of global climate change –  mass species extinction, pollinator collapse, and increased impacts from storms – show us that we urgently need to value and protect the natural systems that sustain life on our planet.

While taking part in the presentations and discussions at the Pellet Fuels Institute conference, it was very clear that the definition of sustainability used by the industry was not only outdated, it failed to recognize the reality of the environmental and social challenges we all face. Put another way, biomass companies like Drax and Enviva define “sustainability” not as it relates to climate or environmental concerns, but throw it around because they believe it will appeal to consumers as part of their marketing schemes.

Sustainability for the biomass industry is focused on the forest’s ability to provide industrial-scale facilities with wood and profit over a short period of time. For example, the biomass industry speaks at length about the amount of “forests” that are growing and how these figures prove they are a “sustainable” industry.

No questions or analysis were provided about these plantation forests’ ability to provide clean water, diverse habitat, local economic equality, or carbon storage. Why? Simply put, that’s not the goal.

From 1950 to 2010, pine plantation acreage in the Southeastern US skyrocketed from 1.8 million acres to 40 million acres. During that same time period, 33 million acres of natural forest If a natural forest is replaced with a pine plantation, there is a severe loss of the critical natural services that we urgently need. Famed Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson found that a pine plantation is 98% less biodiverse than a natural forest, and science shows us that they are much less equipped to sequester carbon.

Native Forest after Clearcut
A clear-cut native forest being converted to a pine plantation near Enviva’s Ahoskie facility in Eastern North Carolina. These tiny pine trees will take 20-40 years to reach maturity, when they’ll be clear-cut again. The carbon stock and native habitat of this forest will likely never recover.

We simply can’t afford to let this industry operate under these outdated definitions that have contributed to our current situation and call it sustainable forest management. If the emerging bioenergy industry wants to truly be sustainable, it must acknowledge these inconvenient truths.

2. They’re losing on the carbon debate – they know it – but can’t admit it publicly.

Carbon emissions are one of the most heavily debated issues within bioenergy policy. In the past two years, multiple government agencies and peer reviewed studies have made it very clear that if we are going to truly meet any local, national, or global commitments to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions, then burning forests to produce energy moves us in the wrong direction. Even when we consider hypothetical regrowth scenarios, the “carbon bomb” emitted from burning forests will remain in the atmosphere for decades – time that we simply don’t have if we want to halt the worst impacts of climate change.

Enviva facility in Ahoskie, NC. Photo taken April, 2016.
Enviva facility in Ahoskie, NC. Photo taken April, 2016.

At the Pellet Fuels Institute, this central issue of carbon emissions and the emerging scientific consensus around it is merely an afterthought. Conference presenters only mentioned carbon as if carbon neutrality in their industry was a forgone conclusion. They briefly cited risky and unproven complicated economic models (which are mostly industry-funded) that ignore historical trends. Yet, when I spoke one-on-one with attendees, many acknowledged that when you burn whole trees and large diameter residuals for electricity it is not carbon neutral (more on this industry rift in my third point). Climate impacts from deforestation are well acknowledged and widely accepted, but the emergence of the bioenergy industry has presented us with a new player that is dramatically exacerbating these impacts.

It is time for us to fully quantify and regulate forest carbon emissions from industrial bioenergy.

Industrial bioenergy is not carbon neutral, and while it seems that many in the industry would privately acknowledge this, their firm and well-funded public “stake in the ground” around carbon neutrality continues to delay necessary and urgent action to protect our forests, communities, and global community.

3. Size Matters: Biomass, it’s an issue of scale.

The Pellet Fuels Institute conference primarily focuses on smaller scale wood pellet systems used for home and commercial heating. While air quality and community issues stemming from this type of bioenergy production are a clear and present danger, by far the greatest and most urgent issue is the large-scale, industrial-use of bioenergy. Leading bad actors, Enviva and Drax, continue to drive devastating impacts to the forests, climate, and communities. All while hiding behind faulty science and inadequate certifications.

Many conference attendees are seemingly shocked and awed at the fact that communities and organizations across the world are standing up in opposition to this industry. At the same time, they welcome and celebrate companies like Enviva and Drax – who were prominently featured at the conference.

It’s an issue of scale. The most severe impacts to forests and the climate are simply unavoidable when you’re operating at the scale of companies like Drax and Enviva.

This is not your grandparents’ wood stove we’re talking about; this is operating an enormous power plant using enough wood to power an entire country.

At this scale, the question isn’t whether or not this industry can operate in a “sustainable” manner. The question should be, “Why are we heading in this direction in the first place?”

Forest Defender
A Forest Defender protesting in front of the Enviva export facility in Norfolk, VA. Every year millions of tons of Southern forests leave this facility on a long journey to be incinerated in European power stations.

Drax and Enviva sell themselves to the public as relying on “leftovers” from existing logging operations. This paints a picture that they’re only picking up the scraps after a forest has been cut, attempting to wipe their hands clean of any wrongdoing. But the fact is that when this industry operates at its current scale (in 2015 Enviva produced 1.39 million tons of wood pellets, which require harvesting approximately 27,000 acres of forest), the only way to meet that demand is through an increase in industrial logging. That is the last thing we need, as urgency to protect Southern forests has never been greater. A recent report from the EU Commission notes that,

“[L]ogging residuals (tops and limbs) are generally poorly suited for industrial wood pellets, and its share of total feedstock volume is insignificant.”

Increasingly I hear from foresters, landowners, and even those within the Pellet Fuels Institute, that they do not support this inefficient and backwards use of forests. If the Pellet Fuels Institute wants to avoid a bunch a forest critters “flash mobbing” their conference, I would suggest that they separate themselves from these bad companies.

One Response to “Sustainability Magic, Carbon Confusion, and Bigger is Definitely Not Better”

  1. Barbara H. Vinson

    The photos above illustrate beautifully the destruction of nature and human greed. Too many humans are happiest when killing wildlife, raping forests, and polluting. This kind of thing is indicative of emotional plague, in which to maim and kill is the norm. Something must be done about it before human destruction, which knows no bounds, finally destroys the planet. Already, the signs are apparent.


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