Wood Pellets: The New Coal (re-broadcast)

Back in the 16th century, when England began to run out of trees, it started burning coal. And by 1700, most Brits were using coal as their main source of fuel. But then coal became scarce. To come full circle, today England is burning large amounts of wood again – much of it in the form of wood pellets from the US. Wood has somehow been designated as a renewable energy source since the Kyoto Protocol in 1992 and the repercussions have been devastating. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to journalist Justin Catanoso, a journalism professor at Wake Forest University, about the dangers of this latest transition to a fuel source which is leading to deforestation and pollution. We learn about the wood pellet industry, manufacturing giant Enviva, and the wide-ranging problems caused by burning trees.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability.

00:22 Justin Catanoso (JC) – If more countries just did that one thing, if they shifted their definition of woody biomass from renewable to not renewable and you can make that a caveat because the fact of the matter is woody biomass is in time frames that aren’t relative, that aren’t salient in this particular climate crisis.

00:47 Narrator – Back in the 16th century, when England began to run out of trees, it started burning coal. And by 1700, most Brits were using coal as their main source of fuel. But then coal became scarce. To come full circle, today England is burning large amounts of wood again – much of it in the form of wood pellets from the US. Wood has somehow been designated as a renewable energy source since the Kyoto Protocol in 1992 and the repercussions have been devastating. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to journalist Justin Catanoso, a journalism professor at Wake Forest University, about the dangers of this latest transition to a fuel source which is leading to deforestation and pollution. We learn about the wood pellet industry, manufacturing giant Enviva, and the wide-ranging problems caused by burning trees.

02:00 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Justin Catanoso. He is an environmental journalist and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University. Justin, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

02:12 Justin Catanoso (JC) – Thanks, Alex, thanks for having me on.

02:14 Alex Wise (AW) – So you have a piece up on Mongabay entitled “The Netherlands to Stop Paying Subsidies to Untruthful Biomass Firms. This is centering around wood pellets and this is a fuel that you’ve covered extensively. Why is this move by the Netherlands important?

02:35 Justin Catanoso (JC)  – Well, let’s talk first about where the move came from. I’ve been a journalist a really long time, Alex, and we hope our reporting has impact and often you never get to see it. But I had a story post on Mongabay a month ago in which I had my own observations of the harvesting of wood for wood pellets by the world’s largest maker of wood pellets, Enviva. But the real important aspect of that story was the very first whistleblower from inside the biomass industry. This was a high-ranking employee at 2 plants at Enviva in the state of North Carolina, which is where you’re reaching me right now and he worked for Enviva for more than two years. He was in charge of all the machines that turned wood and wood chips into wood pellets. He was the maintenance leader and this is the first guy to ever go public from inside the industry, basically calling out Enviva on its environmental credentials on its claims of being environmentally friendly, climate friendly, and a sustainable renewable source of bioenergy.

03:51 AW – So let’s take a step back and explain to our listeners what these wood pellets are – kind of give us a range of the biomass that we’ve heard that that’s a very kind of gentle, generous term biomass. It sounds great, and it sounds like you’re burning your compost pile in the back, but on the other end of the spectrum it can be quite nefarious.

04:13 JC – So I mean, you’re right, there is a range of bioenergy like we grow a lot of corn to go into to go into gasoline. Soy gets turned into bioenergy. There are lots of crops that are grown to be turned into bioenergy. But woody biomass is what we’re talking about. And folks may know it from their backyard grills from wood stoves that they might have as a secondary heat source in a cabin or a small house at that sort of consumer scale is not that bad. This wood generally comes from wood waste stuff that lumber yards are discarding and treetops and limbs and things like that. That’s what goes into sort of small scale consumer. Wood pellets that you would buy in £50 bags at a Home Depot or a Lowe’s or something like that. But what we’re talking about over the last 10 to 12 years was the rise of industrial scale wood burning for energy. And it’s replacing coal. And so in the state of North Carolina where Enviva has four plants. They’re not putting wood pellets in the £50 bags, they’re putting it on to freighter ships. They’ve got a designated port in Wilmington, NC and they shipped 2.6 million metric tons of wood pellets just from North Carolina to the European Union and the United Kingdom to be burned instead of coal in formerly, coal-fired power plants, so that’s what we’re talking about. And this is coming largely from native forests. It’s coming some from residue, but mostly from whole trees that are being harvested on private property throughout eastern North Carolina, southern Virginia and the Deep South.

06:07 AW – Now, besides the fact that wood smoke is pretty bad for human lungs and not good for trying to reduce our carbon emissions, the Netherlands and others who are blowing the whistle on this practice. The problem isn’t just these virgin forests, so are there examples of sound wood pellet manufacturing that’s not using virgin forests as its feedstock, Justin?

06:36 JC – So it’s a fair question and in vivo on their website actually says and defines. And I write about this in my story, where I feature the whistleblower. They say there’s good biomass and there’s bad biomass. Good biomass is residue, it’s lumber waste, it’s tree tops and limbs. It’s the stuff that’s sitting on the forest floor – It’s not whole trees. It’s not hardwoods. And bad biomass contributes to deforestation, harms biodiverse habitats, things like that.

07:11 AW – And you said that this has really kind of blossomed as an industry in the last decade 10 to 12 years. It seems kind of unfathomable in a lot of ways that it would, as we’re getting off of coal, and we’re trying to wean ourselves off of these bad fuels. It seems like wood is taking us further back than what we were doing in in the industrial revolution, in our burning of coal.

07:35 JC – There are lots of scientists that say exactly that Alex and this began in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol as they were sort of defining what renewable energy was. They said hydro is renewable, solar is renewable, wind is renewable. And biomass is renewable. The thing that they said in 1997 and what they were thinking, is that, cut a tree. Plant a tree. Trees regrow and therefore this is a renewable energy source. Now it took a while before the industry saw this as an opportunity, but it really kind of coincided at a time when the European Union and the United Kingdom was mandating that its energy production wean itself off coal and so they’ve got. Essentially this fixed cost of all these coal-fired power plants, and it’s expensive to build all the windmills and all the solar installations that you would need to replace the energy that you’re getting from coal. And here’s the Kyoto Protocol with a policy saying, well, you can burn wood. And that would be a renewable energy resource, and they actually went a step further and said it’s not only renewable, it should be considered carbon neutral, which means that countries that burn wood do not have to claim the emissions at the smokestack. This gets a little complicated, but the emissions are actually supposed to be counted in the country where the wood is collected. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because one reason is the United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, but we’re the number one producer of wood pellets in the World so this loophole has been created for an industry to flourish and for countries unfortunately to be expedient rather than accurate. And in how they manage the renewable energy supply. So this is all legal. It’s all aboveboard, but Germany essentially is replacing wood for coal. And in the process generating more emissions than if they kept burning coal and the reason for that is that wood pellets are not as energy dense as coal. So you have to burn more wood to come up with the same amount of energy than if you were burning coal, but on paper, all of this, is allegedly a good thing. In reality, the science suggests that we’re destroying forests. We’re reducing our carbon sinks and we’re increasing carbon emissions at the very time when we need to. Be reducing them.

10:15 AW – And the Netherlands is trying to change this reality, what does this mean? Can Dutch lawmakers be a spark, if you will, to affect change in how nations view these wood pellets, Justin.

10:33 JC – It’s too early to say, but there are two big things that happened last month that I reported on. One was in the Netherlands and the other one was in Australia. Now that what happened in Australia may even be more significant than what happened in the Netherlands. So let me just take the Netherlands first. So essentially, the House of Representatives in the Netherlands passed a motion that compels the Dutch Government. To ensure that wood pellets that they use and they import hundreds of thousands of tons of wood pellets a year, but wood pellets that they import from outside from really any source, that it be certified – that it be inspected and certified that is not contributing to deforestation is not harming biodiversity and is not reducing tree cover and sort of having a worse impact on climate change. That’s a significant development by one country. Will that spread to other individual EU countries that are burning biomass? We’ll see. There are lots of countries that not only depend on biomass. Further energy, Belgium being one, Italy being another Germany, Denmark. They all burn a lot of wood pellets, but then you’ve got countries in the EU, in Eastern Europe, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and then in Scandinavia you’ve got Finland and Sweden, which are producing wood pellets. They’ve got forests, they’ve got forests to cut down, so in those governments you probably aren’t going to see a lot of movement, but there’s a liberal streak in the Netherlands, and there’s also a virulent anti biomass movement that has turned the public almost wholeheartedly against biomass burning in that particular country, so we’ll see if that spreads. But what happened in Australia is also significant, because what they did in mid-december was that they by definition. Said that, woody biomass cannot be considered a renewable energy source that if you produce import or use woody biomass to generate energy, you will not get renewable energy certificates. This is significant for one reason. There is no biomass industry to speak of in Australia. They were knocking on the door. There were four plants that were getting ready to transition. This essentially that rule change that that definition change essentially keeps the biomass industry from getting a foothold in Australia. Yeah, but it also puts a G20 country at odds with the definition that is followed by the European Union and the United Kingdom, and that is, in the United Kingdom and the European Union, that woody biomass is a renewable energy source and that it can be burned in instead of coal, and that you can get renewable energy credit for it and subsidized this stuff to the tune of billions of EUR or billions of pounds a year, which is what they’re doing right now. I don’t know how these two first world countries can exist, can coexist with this difference of definition.

13:58 (music break)

14:53 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to journalist Justin Catanoso. So you mentioned, Justin, that you’re in North Carolina and Enviva has four plants there and is exporting just tons of wood pellets cut down from forest is that all from North Carolina or that would being sourced from all over North America?

15:16 JC – No, it’s just from North Carolina. So these plants you know this is a. This is a a profitable industry Enviva went over a billion dollars in revenue in in 2021. It was their best year ever. They’ve been a public company since 2015. They’ve been around as a company for over 10 years.

15:32 AW – This is their primary product?

15:34 JC – This is their only product.

15:35 AW – So they’re not making paper or anything like that?

15:38 JC – No, all they do is make wood pellets and they’re the world’s largest producer of wood pellets they produce. 6 million metric tons of wood pellets a year right now, with plans as they stated a year ago to go to 13 million metric tons, all coming from the Southeastern United States. Within five years, all coming essentially from native forests or most of it coming from native forests. So their sourcing areas tend to be 50 miles within the plant itself. It’s costly to have these trees knocked down. It’s costly to have them either chipped on site and then trucked to their to their plants.

Or have the the the tree trunks themselves trucked so they’re not bringing in wood from all over North America. They’re getting it from a 50 mile radius, and the significance of that is is that we’re losing. Our tree cover at a fairly rapid. The rate in eastern North Carolina I I cite a study in my story a month ago where I featured the whistleblower from the Southern Environmental Law Center that says the harvest area within 3 overlapping plants in eastern North Carolina and southern Virginia by Enviva is contributing to a net force. Loss of 6% a year or about 4600 acres of woodland a year. We’re losing above and beyond any regrowth or replanting that’s taking on. It’s fairly significant.

17:04 AW – How are they able to just? Devastate our forests like this.

17:08 JC – So there’s a reason why Enviva is only collecting wood in the southeast. 90% of wooded land in the southeast is in private hands. Enviva doesn’t cut down a single tree. Enviva outsources that to logging companies and trucking company.

17:25 AW – They’re almost like the waste management company for the wood industry.

17:29 JC – Exactly, but they basically say this is how many tons of fiber and that’s what they call it fiber. We need a day to keep our plants humming so we need our contracts in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and increasingly, Japan and South Korea. The loggers are knocking on doors. And basically saying look, it looks to me like you’ve got 1000 acres of land here. You’re paying taxes on all this land. I’ll give you this much money to if you’ll let me have 10 to 15% of your trees. And now Enviva doesn’t get all of that. I need to be clear about that Enviva is correct in that it’s not taking all of the trees. They get, they get knocked down on a cut site. The largest trees, the straightest trees. Those are being those are being prepared to go to sawmills, but I went in in early November. I went to a cut site. It was 52 acres. It was in the town of Edenton. Which is right on the coast and This site is owned by the town of Edenton and they contracted with the logging company to have the whole site cleared. Because that’s going to be an industrial development and what I saw on that site was big logs being set aside to go to sawmills and then the rest was being chipped and sent to an Enviva pellet plant about 35 miles away. When I talked to the the logger in charge of that cut block. I asked him what you know what percentage was going to Enviva and he said about half. And that’s generally what they’re taking at these different cut sites wherever they’re harvesting wood in in East Eastern North Carolina, or the five plants that they have in the Deep South in Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana.

19:19 AW – Are they hiding the fact that these are virgin trees, sometimes being cut down in native forests?

19:25 JC – So these are the questions that are difficult to get at quite frankly, and it’s why this is such a challenging story to cover. Enviva says rightfully so that they’re not taking all the wood from that site, they’re actually just taking what’s deemed low value wood, low value wood to them are smaller trees, cooka trees. Trees that lumber mills don’t want because they can’t be turned into board feet. OK, the fact of the matter is birds, animals, insects don’t really care whether trees are straight or crooked like these biodiverse habitats rely on trees of all kinds. In eastern North Carolina, which is subject to some of the most ferocious storms that we have on the East Coast, intact forests are our front line of defense against climate change and climate driven calamities. And we’re losing 4600 acres of woodland a year in just three harvest areas in eastern North Carolina. In Virginia now, only half of that wood is going to Enviva, but Enviva is increasing the demand for that wood. So the question becomes, and it’s one that I can’t answer that 52 acre cut block if Enviva wasn’t taking half of that wood, would it have been profitable for that logging company to even say, yeah, we’ll we’ll clear that lot. If it had to leave half of the trees on the site, or if they had to go in there and selectively log, which is really expensive. So when Eniva is pushing the demand for wood at a time in eastern North Carolina, where the demand for wood is actually dropping off because there’s not as much demand for paper, there’s not as much demand for fluff. There’s not as much demand for these sort of low grade paper products. There’s still big demand for lumber, but that takes bigger trees.

21:14 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to journalist Justin Catanoso. He’s also a journalism professor at Wake Forest University. So can existing coal plants be easily outfitted to burn biomass? How have grids adopted this new fuel so readily, I mean you, you hear about some of these plants can take years and years to build, but there must be a work around here, right?

21:43 JC – Correct – I mean, this is what’s made by woody mass so popular. Quite frankly because it is inexpensive for countries to meet their energy needs without having to build new energy installations. I don’t know what the retrofit is, but I don’t think it’s that difficult. You’re simply dumping a different source. Into your hoppers in terms of what you’re burning, instead of burning coal, you’re burning wood and that investment that you’ve put into that power. Plant gets to be used and you have the added benefit. Again, according to policy, completely legal of not having to count those emissions. So even though your emissions are expanding in the real world and to nature on paper, as you as you report back to the UN, you can say, “look, we’ve reduced our carbon emissions by X percentage because we’re using this renewable energy source.” Alex, in the European Union 60% of renewable energy comes from burning wood. 60%.

22:45 AW – When we look at the woody biomass industry. These wood pellets, they’re mostly being used for fueling electrical grids, correct? These are big issues on a government level, so it can be a little more despairing because of that.

23:04 JC – This is up to policymakers I. I mean, you know there are NGO’s that are fighting this around the world literally and there are sources of mine in Japan in South Korea. In a host of countries in the European Union in the UK, in British Columbia and in the Southeastern United States, including the Dogwood Alliance is 1, which is one of the bigger names fighting biomass. It’s based right here in North Carolina, you know, their their goals and and they’re making a lot of progress in this is turning public opinion against this energy source as they come. Understand the impact that it’s having on the environment and that it’s not having the emissions reduction impact that it it claims to and, and this becomes sort of an associated impact where you hope that public opinion will drive policymakers to change. Here in North Carolina it is our policy to treat the manufacturing of wood pellets like the manufacturing of anything else that we do in the state, whether it’s textiles or furniture or tobacco, and so it’s regulated like any other manufacturing industry. However, by policy we’ve also stated. Governor Cooper has stated in his renewable energy plan that North Carolina will never burn wood pellets for energy. Even though we are producing more wood pellets in North Carolina, pretty much anybody else. But he’s not going to bat in the legislature to say we need to clamp down on this industry because they are taking away our tree cover in eastern North Carolina. These plants operate in four of the poorest counties in North Carolina. They happen to be majority African American. They are poor. They go in and they build $100 million plant without asking for any economic incentives. They immediately become the largest taxpayer, if not one of the largest taxpayers in the county. They give a little bit of money to the schools to the EMS, to you know the recreation leagues and they become a good citizen. They employ anywhere from 50 to 100 people. The pollution that they that they create is a problem. The noise pollution is a problem. The truck traffic is a is a problem. The dust that comes out of these plants within a several mile radius of the plant. But they put up with it because it’s sort of an economic bonus to communities that don’t have any economic development.

25:29 AW – So let’s assume that Enviva is telling the truth and that they’re not harvesting native forest for this. Is that enough, Justin?

25:39 JC – So you know if if we if we take them at their word and and what they said to me when I was doing my story is that they are not contributing to deforestation, that forests are actually growing back faster than they are cutting them down. Now I’ve got independent research that that undermines that, but let’s just take them at their word that they are sustainable, and they are not contributing to biodiversity loss, or they’re not contributing to deforestation. Is this OK? You’ve got to look at the emissions, Alex. The Paris Agreement is all about reducing carbon emissions first and foremost second. It’s about preserving forests and stopping or slowing down, deforestation, whatever, wherever it occurs. But if we just look at emit what burning biomass does not do is reduce emissions, and there are countless studies that have demonstrated this you can’t solve. The climate crisis by burning something else. If more countries just did that one thing, if they shifted their definition of woody buy a mass from renewable to not renewable and and you can make that a caveat because the fact of the matter is woody biomass is renewable. In time frames that aren’t relative that aren’t salient in this particular climate crisis, so the study that gets cited the most is by a scientist at MIT named John Sternum, and he estimates that when you clear cut a lot, and if you replant it, it takes 44 years to 100 years. For the trees that you’ve taken off that lot and turned into smoke. For those new trees that you planted to pull that smoke to pull that carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere.

27:25 AW – Technically renewable, but a really long time, until it renews.

27:29 JC – Exactly, we don’t have that kind of time in this climate crisis. You know, the United Nations tells us we basically have until 2030 to dramatically decarbonize the major economies of the world. If we’re going to have a shot at slowing what appears to be an inexorable rate. Of global warming that we are experiencing right now, and as you’re experiencing in California right now, with these climate driven rain storms that you just don’t see very often.

27:57 AW – Justin Catanoso thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 JC – Alex, it’s been pleasure. Thank you.

28:17 AW – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Horace Silver and Hank Williams. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com. To stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.