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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 may decide to limit the use of U.S. trees for energy. Here's what that means in NC

101221 Wood pellet handful.JPG
David Boraks
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WFAE
Wood pellets made from trees cut in the southeastern U.S. are burned for energy in Europe, but the European Parliament is considering changing rules that allow and incentivize the industry.

The European Union is considering changes to its climate policies that could have a big effect on a controversial segment of North Carolina's forestry sector — the wood pellet industry.

EU countries have been using wood pellets made from trees in the Southeast to burn for electricity, claiming it’s a carbon-neutral substitute for coal. But that could change. WFAE "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn talked with climate reporter David Boraks about the legislation.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Hey David

David Boraks: Hey

Glenn: OK, so just to start off, explain wood pellets. What are they? 

Boraks: Basically, companies cut forests and also collect wood waste. It goes to wood pellet plants, where the wood is ground up and compressed into pellets about the size of a medicine capsule. Then it's shipped to European power plants, where it's burned in place of coal.

Glenn: Why is the EU buying them from our neck of the woods?

Boraks: A few reasons. First, because most forests in our region are privately owned and allow logging. That's not true in Europe. Second, because states subsidize construction of wood pellet plants, because they create jobs in rural areas. 

But the big reason: Europe classifies wood pellets —  or wood biomass as it's sometimes called — as renewable energy and allows them to be counted as "carbon neutral." And governments there pay power companies billions of dollars every year to use wood in place of coal.  

Trees certainly are renewable, but it can take decades to re-grow the forests that are lost to these operations.

Glenn: What’s going on now with the EU? 

Boraks: The European Parliament is now reconsidering its rules after years of criticism and lobbying from environmentalists on both sides of the Atlantic. The environment committee approved new limits this month on using wood harvested from primary forests. I talked to Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center. He's one of those U.S.-based experts who has been meeting with European leaders.

Derb Carter (recording): This is the first step of a longer process. 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.

Boraks: The rules change now goes to another committee and could come up for vote at the full European Parliament in September.

Glenn: Are wood pellets actually carbon neutral?

Boraks: No. Burning wood pellets emits more carbon than coal. And climate researchers say we also should include carbon emissions from the whole wood pellet supply chain — in harvesting, trucking wood pellets to and from ports and shipping them to Europe on diesel-burning ships.

Under convoluted global carbon accounting, the carbon is supposed to be counted when the trees are actually cut, back here in the Southeastern U.S. But it’s not clear if it's actually being counted here right now.

Glenn: North Carolina has four wood pellet plants, and there's one in South Carolina. It seems to be a big business here. What’s it look like across the Southeast?

Boraks: The U.S. is the main supplier of wood pellets to Europe, and the industry is growing fast — mainly here in the Southeast. U.S. wood pellet exports are up more than 60% since 2016, with sales just over $1 billion a year. Enviva, the company that owns those plants in the Carolinas, is the largest U.S. exporter. It's building more plants and says it wants to double sales over the next five years.

And what it looks like from a more local perspective is that these wood pellet plants are mostly located in places with lower incomes and communities of color. The plants do create jobs, but they also bring dust, noise and truck traffic. So neighborhood leaders and activists have pushed back.

Glenn: What are you hearing from the wood pellet industry? 

Boraks: It's a major threat to their business, and they're fighting back. The industry points out that governments and even the United Nations have endorsed biomass as a substitute for coal. 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."

I contacted Enviva. They declined to comment.

Critics logging for wood pellets are cautious but hopeful that the legislation will have a big effect on the industry. I talked to Rita Frost of the environmental group the Dogwood Alliance.

Rita Frost (recording): If all this primary wood is excluded — that includes tops, branches and limbs — then all logging strictly for bioenergy would end.

Boraks: But Frost also notes that Britain, which is the largest user of wood pellets, is no longer a member of the EU. So there's a parallel effort going on there to limit wood pellets. We could hear something by the end of the year.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.