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Wood from the Carolinas is increasingly being used overseas for energy. While the industry creates jobs, communities are also paying a price. In this series, reporters from WFAE and WUNC visit communities feeding the world’s appetite for wood energy.

Europe considers rules changes that would limit US pellet industry

030322 Enviva Hamlet plant.JPG
David Boraks
Proposed changes in European renewable energy rules would affect the U.S. wood pellet industry. This is Enviva's wood pellet plant in Hamlet, N.C.

The European Parliament is taking steps to reverse climate policies that promote the use of wood pellets to replace coal in power plants. That would put the brakes on a controversial industry that's booming in the Southeast.

A European Parliament committee voted Tuesday to revise rules that allow power plants to count wood pellets, or wood biomass, as carbon-free. That's even though pellets emit more carbon than coal when burned.

Over the past decade, the policy has spurred an increase in logging and plant construction in the U.S. Two dozen wood pellet plants are now operating from Virginia to Louisiana, including four in North Carolina and two in South Carolina.

Environmental groups have been campaigning against the industry, arguing that wood-fired energy is not climate-friendly and that wood pellet plants bring environmental concerns to their communities.

The EU wants to disallow burning forest wood for energy and end government subsidies to power producers. That would cut the legs out from under the industry, said Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"This is the first step of a longer process," Carter said. "But it's encouraging that the awareness of the problems seems to be sinking in over there, and that they are signaling a pretty significant policy shift in the use of biomass as a part of their climate strategy.

Carter has been among the U.S. environmentalists trying to persuade European leaders to revise the rules.

The wood pellet industry has been lobbying against the rules. Enviva, the largest U.S. exporter of wood pellets, declined to comment.

The U.S. Industrial Wood Pellet Association said in a statement that wood pellets are needed "to protect European energy security and to meet ambitious climate targets." The full statement is below:

"The Environment Committee vote is one of the steps in a very long and important process. Now more than ever, in an increasingly volatile energy market, sustainable bioenergy use can and must increase to protect European energy security and to meet ambitious climate targets. This sentiment continues to be reaffirmed by global experts in energy systems, forestry, and leading scientists, that agree on the need for sustainably sourced bioenergy at a significant scale as an essential component in the fight against climate change. We’ll continue working with our stakeholders to ensure that the process progresses in the right direction and are confident that the EU will find the right balance on biomass so it can play its necessary role."

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