News | March 28, 2022

New study confirms harmful impacts of biomass industry

A new study, commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center, clearly shows the environmental and climate harms the biomass energy industry inflicts on Southern forests.  

The biomass energy industry turns trees into wood pellets and then burns them for power at utility scale. Biomass companies falsely tout this process as clean energy, but burning trees for power can emit more carbon pollution than burning coal, and the industry causes long-lasting damage to forests and wildlife.   

At the beginning of the biomass energy process are wood pellet manufacturing facilities, which are often located in the American South. For the study, researchers from Clark University used satellite images to evaluate the amount of forest cover lost near four wood pellet plants owned by Enviva in North Carolina and Virginia: Southampton, Northampton, Ahoskie, and Sampson. Enviva is the largest wood pellet manufacturer in the world, with nine pellet plants across the South.  

Researchers found that logging in the sourcing areas near the four pellet mills sharply increased after Enviva began operating the plants. In 2019, Forest Service data shows that more than 6.6 million green tons of forest were cut for bioenergy or fuelwood in these areas. That’s the equivalent of 71,000 acres of forests cut, with Enviva being a primary user of this wood.  

Furthermore, the study showed that from 2016 to 2018, Enviva’s Ahoskie, Northampton, and Southampton pellet mills consumed nearly half of the wood from hardwood forest clearings in the sourcing area. Cutting forests at this scale can degrade water quality for communities downstream and destroy wildlife habitats, further threatening at-risk species. 

Despite industry claims, most of the wood used to manufacture pellets was not waste wood or residues – like limbs, tops, scraps, or rotten trees. Instead, the vast majority of material harvested for these wood pellet facilities were tree trunks or boles.  

Southern hardwood forests store vast amounts of carbon and logging them releases heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis. This study confirmed that extensive logging for wood pellet plants were likely reducing carbon stocks in forests around the company’s Ahoskie, Northampton, and Southampton pellet mills. 

This new information solidifies what we’ve already known: the biomass energy industry is bad for the climate from start to finish – from when the trees are first cut to when they are eventually burned for power thousands of miles away.  

While this study only examined Enviva pellet facilities in Northeastern North Carolina and Southeastern Virginia, there are similar stories playing out across the South. There has been a sharp increase in the number of pellet mills operating in the region in recent years. Currently, 23 active pellet export facilities operate in the South, with 11 more facilities being proposed.  

This growth is possible because of government incentives from the U.K. and European Union, who wrongly categorized biomass as ‘clean energy’ and, as a result, give biomass companies billions of dollars of government subsidies. The biomass energy industry would not be economically viable if it weren’t for these irresponsible incentives. 

It is crucial that U.S. leaders do not make the same mistakes made overseas, and do not create incentives for this dangerous industry.

Tell President Biden to cut carbon, not forests.