Burning Wood Pellets: A Good Green Idea?

Environmental Commentary by Liza Field

A broad effort to keep our planet alive is burning up planetary life. Make sense?

Not to some researchers. Three southern universities recently evaluated the wood-pellet industry and its impact on eastern forest ecology.

The report details how this “renewable” energy surge is sending live, species-rich forests up in a remote-smoke.

“One of the biggest concerns raised by the report is escalating pressure for cutting bottomland hardwood forests,” said David Carr, general counsel for Southern Environmental Law Center, which helped fund the study.

Escalating pressure from where? The green-minded European Union, weirdly.

In 2007, the E.U. established a goal of 20 percent “renewable energy” use by 2020.

Several European coal-burning plants have thus converted to burning wood. But to meet energy demands far more wood is required than coal—and finding enough trees to toss into the fire is a challenge.

Europe was largely deforested centuries ago. After severe impoverishment of soil and water quality, biodiversity and climate buffer, these countries now guardedly protect and value the remaining forests.

But logging in the United States remains mostly an unregulated free-for-all. And eastern states, still pocketed with valuable wetland hardwoods, lie handily close to ports.

Hence the ship-a-forest-fire industry now consuming these woods.

The 2013 study focuses on Enviva LP, whose forest-leveling “vertical integration” includes a huge facility in Chesapeake, Va., built to export mid-Atlantic sourced wood pellets.

These pellets are marketed under ironic terms like “waste wood” and “sustainable.”

What's in them?

“Sawdust, wood chips, tops and limbs of trees that otherwise wouldn't have another market,” said Enviva’s Liz Woodworth.

She added that some “whole trees” are also used if they're “too small, crooked or diseased” for lumber markets.

Whether the trees are too crooked for the songbirds, amphibians and mammals that depend on them for myriad reasons more vital than lumber is not a consideration—perhaps because Enviva is indeed using all kinds of mature hardwoods, including large volumes from clear-cuts of bottomland forest, according to SELC’s research.

The environmental law group’s own investigations, flyovers and site visits around the Enviva plant in Ahoskie, N.C., found wetlands cleared in its sourcing areas and giant log mountains of disease-free, large hardwoods waiting to be chipped and shipped for the fires.

Much more forest habitat may well meet this fate.

“Enviva’s location and reliance on hardwoods is likely to have devastating impacts on wetlands and wildlife, particularly birds,” Carr said.

This constitutes a severe blow, as many southeastern songbird species already are struggling to survive.

The imperiled Acadian flycatcher, the yellow prothonotary and blue cerulean warblers, whose few last breeding habitats include these Eastern wetland woods, will be stressed even further by this deforestation.

In fact, “30 percent of migratory songbirds” in general are “dependent on these bottomland hardwood forests,” said birder and SELC senior attorney, Derb Carter.

The pellet industry maintains that burning up entire trees is still better for the planet than burning fossil fuels.

John Keppler, Enviva’s chief executive, asserts that “young trees absorb more carbon than older trees.” He reasons, “What's the best way to get more carbon absorbed? Cut it down. Replant.”

But Keppler's degrees are in business—not biology, forestry, climate science or law.

The industry version of green assumes that private landowners will or even can quickly restore complex native woodlands, despite the invasive species, blights, droughts, bark-gnawing deer and weather extremes now impairing forest regeneration.

Moreover, Carter said, private landowners aren’t required to restore woodlands.

Even if they do, said forestry professor William Conner, at Clemson University, deforested wetlands don’t revive quickly or with the same native species.

Environmental groups also contest the industry’s “young-tree” version of climate science, as burning mature forest instantly emits amounts of long-sequestered carbon that would take saplings many decades to absorb.

Just converting these U.S. trees to European smoke leaks energy every step of the way, Carter said. “We’re cutting forest over here, which requires energy, processing them into pellets, transporting them to a port, putting them on a boat burning diesel fuel to haul them all the way across the Atlantic, to again transport them to a utility to burn.”

This brings us back to the old bottom line—the foundational one, sustaining the biosphere.

“Our forests aren’t meant to be burned as fuel,” the Dogwood Alliance urges. Their forest-advocacy website offers energy alternatives and an “Act Now” tab for concerned visitors at its website. SELC discusses the 2013 impact study at http://southernenvironment.org/.

Liza Field, a teacher, writes from Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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