Biomass Energy in the South

Sustainable Sourcing: SELC is calling for clear standards that prevent the conversion of native forests into energy crops.

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N.C. citizens group, SELC challenge permit for polluter issued without public notice More »

On behalf of the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, SELC challenged a new state air permit for a proposed Enviva wood pellet plant because it was issued without any notice or opportunity for the local community to comment. The Hamlet, North Carolina plant would be located in close proximity to a predominantly African-American community already dealing with other major sources of air pollution.

“It’s deeply troubling that a permit would be issued for a new major pollution source without the community impacted having an opportunity to voice their concerns and provide input,” said SELC attorney Myra Blake. “The law requires that people have the right to public notice and comment and a chance to speak at a public hearing before permits are issued for new sources of major pollution in their communities.”

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality first published a draft air permit for this facility in September 2015. The public notice for the draft permit vaguely identified the location of the facility as “Highway 177, Hamlet NC,” with no indication of the specific address where the facility would be located. The draft permit files identified an incorrect and invalid address for the facility, with a street address in Hamlet and a zip code from another county. DEQ also failed to provide concerned citizens a public hearing on this proposed major new industrial source of air pollution in their community.

As a result, many members of the community did not learn of the air quality permit until after it was finalized in March 2016. Once the community became aware of the permit and the air pollution it allows, representatives of the community met with DEQ officials, notified DEQ of its error, and urged it to issue a new draft permit that provided proper notice to the affected community and a public hearing so that people living near the proposed plant could voice their concerns.

Instead, DEQ acknowledged its error by issuing a new final air permit through what it called an ‘administrative amendment’ that listed a new, different address for the facility, without even notifying the community of its action.

“We want a voice in the decision to permit this major source of air pollution in our community,” said Kim McCall with Concerned Citizens of Richmond County. “We all deserve healthy air in our communities and the opportunity to be properly notified and have input into decisions to permit major sources of pollution that affect us.”

SELC filed a petition for a contested case in the Office of Administrative Hearings to challenge DEQ’s issuance of a new permit with a new address, while failing to correct the deficient public notice and improper denial of a public hearing that accompanied the original draft permit.

The existing permit does not mandate standard pollution controls required by law that are widely used across the southeast to protect air quality. As a result, DEQ unnecessarily allowed the facility to emit hundreds of tons of harmful and hazardous air pollutants each year, further burdening people’s health. By issuing a new permit with appropriate pollution controls, the state could eliminate this avoidable pollution, protect the health of the community, and safeguard the air that people breathe. 

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Clear Standards Needed for Emerging Fuel Source

As the nation looks for renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, the energy contained in trees, grasses and other plants is emerging as a power source for cars, trucks, electric utilities, and heating systems. This new industry is starting to take off in the South, a region known for its vast tracts of forestlands.

But without proper safeguards and clear definitions of what constitutes a renewable energy source, the use of biomass could backfire. Mature forests are at risk of being converted into energy plantations and valuable wetlands are being clear cut, harming our water and wildlife and increasing heat trapping emissions linked to climate change.

Increased Demand for Wood Pellets

In response to increasing demand from Europe, the wood pellet industry is focusing on sourcing wood from the Southeastern United States. Much of this wood is whole trees that are clear cut and hauled to pellet facilities for eventual export to Europe. At scheduled production levels (1,365,000 dry tons/year, 80 percent hardwood input), the three Enviva wood pellet plants in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia will require more than 17 square miles of hardwood cuts each year. 

Keep Carbon Pollution in Check

America's forests serve as carbon "sinks" that absorb 12 percent of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions the U.S. pumps out each year. Burning trees to generate electricity releases this CO2 and, in fact, can produce more carbon emissions per megawatt than burning coal. Even if trees cut down for energy production are replanted, the climate impacts may be serious. 

A 2012 study (pdf) jointly commissioned by SELC and the National Wildlife Federation found that wood is not an inherently carbon-neutral energy source, as the power industry has claimed. Based on consumption trends in our region, using wood to generate power here or to make fuel pellets for power generation in Europe is projected to produce higher levels of atmospheric carbon than fossil fuels for 35 to 50 years. After that time, carbon levels will begin to fall as regrowing forests absorb CO2 from previous combustion, but it is likely too late to avoid irreversible effects on the climate system.

In addition, a 2013 study (PDF) also commissioned by SELC and the National Wildlife Federation found that rapid development of woody biomass energy facilities in the Southeast U.S. has large implications for regional land cover and wildlife habitat. 

Ensure Sustainable Sourcing

To help the South accommodate a measured level of bioenergy without degrading its natural resources, SELC is calling for clear standards that

  • restrict the use of whole trees and prevent the conversion of native forests into energy crops;
  • keep national forests off-limits to biomass extraction, especially in the ecologically rich Southern Appalachians; and
  • ensure protection of old growth forests, streams and wetlands, wildlife habitat, and other natural treasures.

Under such standards, acceptable bioenergy sources would include:

  • Wood waste, such as sawdust and other residue from lumber milling, and clean construction debris;
  • Small diameter thinnings cut from existing pine plantations; and
  • Other energy crops, such as switchgrass, grown on previously fallow land.


Protect Air Quality

Wood as an energy source may be renewable, but burning it produces harmful pollutants besides CO2, such as nitrogen oxides and microscopic dust particles that contribute to serious health risks. Wood-burning facilities must use the most effective pollution controls available.