British science agency agrees with SELC: Burning southern forests for fuel is bad policy

The Enviva wood pellet manufacturing plant in Ahoskie, NC (© SELC)

For years, well-intentioned but misguided European energy policies have led to the loss of thousands of acres of native southern forests. Subsidies for renewable fuels led some EU nations, especially the United Kingdom, to turn to biomass—plant matter burned to create energy—as a replacement for burning coal. But unless it is sourced properly, biomass isn’t sustainable and can actually be worse for greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

With economic incentives in place, several biomass production facilities sprang up in the South, many cutting down whole trees and turning them into wood pellets to ship off to Europe. In North Carolina and Virginia, clear-cutting to feed pellet mills destroyed precious bottomland hardwoods, some more than a century old. And with European demand increasing, the biomass industry proposed several new plants.

SELC stepped in to defend these precious resources. We investigated the pellet mills and detailed the problems in a 2013 report. We met with EU agencies, hosted site visits with British officials and European media, and contributed to a BBC documentary. Now, the scientific arm of the United Kingdom energy agency agrees with SELC. As a result, the wood pellet boom, and its devastating effect on the South, may be nearing an end.

Beginning next year, the U.K.—75 percent of the total European biomass market—may no longer offer generous subsidies to biomass fuels unless they meet a true carbon-reduction target. Most native southern forests won’t qualify, and turning them into wood pellets won’t be a viable business anymore. More work remains to fully incorporate the science into policy, but it is significant progress in the quest to protect one of the South’s most vulnerable resources.

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