Our Clear Cut Problem

Jun 27, 2019

Photo from Dogwood Alliance

by Daniel Parkhurst

As you may have seen from our recent posts about the wood pellet industry in North Carolina, Clean Air Carolina is working hard to reduce dangerous emissions from Enviva and other biomass producers. Manufacturing wood pellets releases air pollutants that cause serious health concerns for surrounding communities. Now, a new report is giving us a fuller picture of how wood pellet production is devastating our forests and wetlands and accelerating climate change. 

While the biomass industry enjoys branding itself as “clean energy,” wood pellets are only sustainable if they are manufactured exclusively from scrap wood. Think the leftover wood at lumber mills. But clearcutting forests to harvest living trees depletes our natural carbon sinks, generating electricity that is pound-for-pound dirtier than coal. And the unfortunate reality is that clearcutting is rampant in North Carolina.

A recent investigation by Dogwood Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Southern Environmental Law Center has revealed direct evidence of these unsustainable practices in our state. Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, is clearcutting North Carolina’s forests at an alarming rate to feed whole trees into their production mills. The damage to our forests and wetlands will take decades to heal, if it ever does. 

Investigators tracked logging trucks from a mature hardwood forest to Enviva’s Northampton facility. Photo from Dogwood Alliance.

The investigation has been ongoing since 2013, when the Wall Street Journal uncovered that Enviva was clearcutting hardwood forests in North Carolina’s wetlands and swamps. In 2019, not much has changed. Investigators tracked logging trucks, full to the brim, taking whole trees from the Tar-Pamlico River Basin to the Enviva Northampton facility.

A quick check on Google Maps shows an astounding number of harvested whole trees being stored at Enviva’s Northampton facility, waiting to be converted into wood pellets. These manufacturing practices destroy our greatest carbon sink, contributes directly to climate change, reduces our resilience to extreme weather…the list goes on and on. 

And don’t be fooled, most of these wood pellets are not bound for your basement heater. They will be shipped to the European Union, primarily the United Kingdom, where they will be burned in old, converted coal plants to generate dirty electricity. 

Clearcutting our forests is not sustainable. Producing wood pellets from whole trees is not sustainable. Generating utility-scale electricity from wood pellets is not sustainable. The modern wood pellet industry, as a whole, is not sustainable and is exacerbating the devastating impacts of climate change. If Enviva and the wood pellet industry want to be part of North Carolina’s clean energy future, it’s time for them to clean up their act.

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