Production of wood pellets continues to expand in North Carolina and across the South. Millions of tons are sent every year to be burned in power plants in Europe, where they're considered a form of renewable energy. But after heavy flooding from hurricanes Matthew and Florence, there's also growing debate over just how environmentally friendly they are.
It’s a debate among competing ideas about how to solve global climate change.
On one side is Enviva, the world's largest wood-pellet producer, which has three plants in North Carolina — and soon to be four.
“We enable our customers to shift away from fossil fuels to fuel their facilities, and that reduces the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions that our customers associate with energy generation,” said Jennifer Jenkins, Enviva's chief sustainability officer.
Most wood pellets from the Southeast are shipped to Europe, where they're burned for energy, as a "green" alternative to coal. The industry has taken off since 2009, when the European Union classified wood pellets as a carbon-neutral, renewable energy source.
Enviva opened its first North Carolina plant in 2011, picking the state in part because 85 percent of forest land here is privately owned, and because it’s near east coast ports.
WORRIES ABOUT LOGGING
On the other side of the debate are environmental groups that object to the increased logging needed to feed Enviva's plants. The Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance estimates the company must cut 37 acres of forest a day for each plant.
“So you're adding a tremendous amount of logging on a landscape that is already a resource that is under stress,” said Danna Smith, executive director of the Dogwood Alliance. “And it's taking us backward, not forward, on climate change and on building resiliency in the wake of these extreme weather events.”
Smith said forests are one of nature's most important tools for “not only pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, but also providing natural protection from extreme weather events like flooding.”
U.S. Forest Service data show that North Carolina's forest land is holding steady at about 18 million acres. Overall, North Carolina's ratio of tree growth to tree removal is around 1.8 — similar to the rate across the Southeast. In other words, trees are growing at twice the rate they are being cut.
“What that means is that for every ton of wood that is harvested from the southeast U.S., two tons are growing every year,” Enviva’s Jenkins said. “So this is not a resource that's being depleted. This is a resource that's being renewed on an annual basis.”
But Forest Service figures show tree replacement is lower in the northeastern (1.3 growth-to-removal ratio) and southeastern (1.7) parts of the state, where industrial logging is prevalen and where Enviva operates.
The company has plants in Northampton, Hertford and Sampson Counties, and in southern Virginia. It's also planning a fourth North Carolina plant, in Hamlet, which is part of Richmond County. All are not far from Enviva's international shipping facilities at the ports of Norfolk and Wilmington.
Enviva's Jenkins would not confirm whether environmentalists' estimate of 37 acres of forest a day per plant is accurate. She disagreed that more serious flooding from big storms is related to logging.
“That’s really a ridiculous allegation, to be honest," Jenkins said. "The fact is that the forest products industry has been operating safely and sustainably for decades in the Southeast U.S."
Enviva says it mostly uses low-grade wood, including treetops, limbs and other otherwise unusable parts of trees and underbrush. Even in areas where high-quality hardwoods are logged, Jenkins said Enviva uses only 30 percent of what's cut. She said most of that timber goes for uses like furniture and construction.
“We're creating a market for low-grade wood and we help ensure that working forests remain as forests,” she said.
Jenkins said Enviva will not buy timber from land logged for development, which doesn't have to be replanted.
But critics say there's not a one-to-one swap when natural forests are converted to managed timberland.
“The biodiversity of what we're replanting doesn't necessarily reflect the biodiversity of what was already naturally there,” said Thomas Easley, an assistant dean at Yale University School of Forestry and a Dogwood Alliance board member. “And so that natural forest can provide not only protection and shade for humans as well as for animals, but it also provides other support for other species that are growing in that ecosystem."
Critics raise another question: Just how “green” are wood pellets? They say cutting trees and burning wood still release carbon. Trucking logs to mills and pellets to port uses fossil fuels. So do the ships that take the pellets to Europe.
WILL POLICIES CHANGE?
Enviva has the state on its side. North Carolina officials have supported the wood-pellet industry by granting permits for new plants and even making grants for wood pellet research.
State Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat who represents eight northeastern North Carolina counties, wants that to change. She spoke at a press conference last month with the Dogwood Alliance.
“We hope that we will get to using policies and putting policies and appropriations in place to protect our environment,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, with concerns growing over global warming, Europeans are starting to rethink their pro-wood pellet policy. This summer, the European Academies' Science Advisory Council warned that burning wood for energy isn't neutral, and called the EU's policy "simplistic and misleading."
Enviva "Track & Trace" website, showing where its wood comes from.
Enviva investor presentation, outlining its business, EnvivaPartners.com
Excerpt from a UK Channel 4 report on Enviva's logging practices.
DogwoodAlliance.org, investigative report by the Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and Southern Environmental Law Center, "European Imports of Wood Pellets for 'Green Energy' Devastating U.S. Forests"