U.K.’s abandonment of coal could threaten Southern forests

A clearcut wetland at an Enviva site in North Carolina. (© Dogwood Alliance)

While President Trump is doubling down on coal as an energy source, British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed this week to give up the dirty fossil fuel by 2025.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined May for the announcement and the commitment to end their countries’ reliance on a fuel that has filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

The news was greeted globally as an affirmation that world industrial powers are able to chart a course to cleaner power sources.

However, one area viewed the announcement with trepidation:

The South.

For the last decade, states including Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia have hosted factories that turned wood into fuel pellets and shipped them to the United Kingdom. There, power plants that burned coal now burn wood pellets that once stood as Southern forests.

But that process has proven fraught with two significant downsides. Studies now show burning wood pellets produces more – not less – heat-trapping carbon dioxide. And to meet the U.K.’s escalating demand for wood pellets, U.S. suppliers have had to rely on harvesting whole trees instead of using only waste wood.

That, says SELC’s David Carr, is a direct threat to Southern forests.

“If the United Kingdom fills the coal gap with wood pellets, that will further boost a market that is already clear-cutting timber to meet demand,” he said. “Worse, we’ll lose acres upon acres of valuable forests to export a fuel that loads the atmosphere with even more carbon dioxide. That’s a losing proposition all around.”

Wood pellets, often called “biomass,” were traditionally created from sawdust and sawmill residue. But as the U.K. demand for wood pellets grew, U.S. companies began chopping entire trees to keep up.

Carr said, to meet present demand, the wood-pellet company Enviva in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia will need to cut about 100 square miles of forest each year.

More demand would mean more clear-cutting, he said.

“Eliminating coal from power production will improve the planet’s atmosphere and combat global warming,” Carr said. “But the replacement must be clean, renewable energy like wind and solar. We can’t just ditch one pollution source for another that’s easily just as bad. And those who value their Southern forests surely don’t want them scalped and packaged for export.”

Related: North Carolina’s environmental agency neglects to hold public hearing for polluting pellet plant, via Southeast Energy News

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