How Europe's Good Environmental Intentions Are Inadvertently Destroying America's Forests

In 2007, the European Union set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020. It's an ambitious goal that has forced energy companies to look far and wide for renewable sources of energy.


Power plants that have traditionally burned coal to generate electricity have found a solution: burning wood. And the growing demand for biomass in Europe — where forests are often highly regulated — has been filled in large part by the American wood pellet industry.

According to a new, first-of-its-kind report (with an accompanying fact sheet) authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council in conjunction with the Conservation Biology Institute, there's a big problem with this arrangement: Due to increasing European demand, wood pellet production has put 15 million acres of unprotected forests in the southeastern United States at risk.

These regions, which make up an area nearly the size of West Virginia, include critical habitat for more than 600 imperiled, threatened or endangered species. In addition, pollution from logging in these regions has put more than 18,000 miles of impaired freshwater rivers and streams at new risk.

The report's authors paint an evocative picture of an endangered ecosystem that is being pushed to the edge by a destructive logging industry:

Rare and precious, these mature forests are the heart of the region's natural ecosystem, supporting globally outstanding biodiversity and unique natural communities that provide a host of vital ecosystem services to the people of the region. Nurturing healthy rivers and streams meander through bald cypress and tupelo trees that tower in the beautiful river swamps. Abundant cavities in tree trunks and branches are home to woodpeckers, flying squirrels, and owls. Along backwater rivers, Atlantic white cedar once formed extensive swamps. In the region's bogs, carnivorous plants such as Venus flytraps and pitcher plants are now found only in small areas. These forests provide habitat for one of the highest concentrations of endangered species in North America, including numerous songbirds, Louisiana black bears, endangered bats and butterflies, and even rare varieties of synchronous fireflies, about which researchers are still learning.

Eight states in the southeastern U.S. — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — currently make up the primary exporting region for wood pellets supplying the EU, with the top importers being Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The report has indentified three specific hot spots of grave concern in which there are 35 proposed or existing mills — the Virginia/North Carolina border, Southeastern Georgia and the Alabama/Mississippi border — with Louisiana an emerging fourth hot spot.

I had a chance to talk to Debbie Hammel, the director of the Land Markets Initiative at NRDC, about this alarming new report. We also discussed the misconceptions of biomass energy that have led to this crisis point, and the true cost of Europe's wood pellet demand on the ecology of the southeastern United States.

Reynard Loki: How long has the NRDC been working on the wood pellet issue?

Debbie Hammel: We've been focused on this issue for the last two years. We launched a campaign in 2013 as we saw the pellet industry expanding across the southeast. We were very concerned at that point that the renewable energy policies in the EU were going to drive a rapid expansion and that this was going to represent a new level of threat to southern forests broadly. We have spent the last couple of years educating policy-makers in the EU and the UK to let them know that the loopholes they've created in their renewable energy policies — that recognize woody biomass as carbon-neutral — are driving this expansion and threaten not just forests in the southeast but will actually increase their carbon emissions over the near and medium term.

RL: Isn't it a widely held belief that biomass energy is less carbon intensive than fossil fuel?

DH: That's been the myth for the last few years, and that's one of the big problems with the EU policies: They recognize all woody biomass as being carbon-neutral. What that means in practice is that when you burn it, you are assuming it won't add carbon emissions to the atmosphere, that it will be better and actually reduce carbon emissions as compared to the fossil fuels they replace. All of the recent science over the last couple of years however, has shown that this assumption is actually incorrect. When you cut down a tree and grind it into pellets and burn it, you're instantaneously releasing all of that carbon that's been soaked up by that tree into the atmosphere, and it takes decades for a tree to grow back and soak up that carbon again. It's also much less efficient than burning fossil fuel, so you have to burn a lot more wood to create the equivalent amount of energy.

RL: Have you gotten any traction from policymakers in the UK and the EU?

DH: Over the last two years, we have certainly opened their eyes. I think that when they first developed this policy, they did it with good intentions and didn't understand the science behind carbon as it relates to biomass. Also, I don't think they expected to see the scale of expansion that we are seeing in the southeast. I think it has surprised them that there has been such an explosive growth in pellet facilities in the southeast in response to this policy. Today they are much more aware of how problematic the carbon issue is. They are also much more sensitive to the fact that these pellet facilities pose a real threat to some of the most sensitive forests across the southeast.

RL: Is the American southeast the main supplier for the UK and the EU in terms of wood pellets?

DH: Yes. They make up 98 percent or more of the exports of wood pellets that are destined for the UK and the EU.

RL: What's at stake ecologically?

DH: These forests, especially bottomland forests, represent a unique habitat in the southeastern United States. These sensitive and irreplaceable forests are home for the highest number of endangered, imperiled and vulnerable species in North America. They also provide many ecosystem services to communities in the southeast, from clean water to flood control and are important to the culture and the heritage of the region.

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RL: Logging is already happening in these forests, and the pellet industry is only a portion of the total timber industry, correct?

DH: Yes, and that is actually one of the problems. You already have a healthy pulp and paper and saw timber industry in the south that are already logging these forests, and the pellet industry is a new level of demand coming in and just intensifying the pressure on that existing resource.

RL: If the pellet industry ended, would the current level of logging in these forests be sustainable?

DH: No. The bottomland hardwood forests need greater protection overall anyway, even in the absence of the pellet industry. These are unique forests. Very few of them are protected in the southeast from any type of logging. Only 10 percent of the remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the south have any kind of formal protection from logging activities, be it for pulp and paper, saw timber or pellets. Even in the absence of the pellet industry, these forests are critical and endangered, and they need greater protection in the U.S. Any new level of demand, however, just intensifies the threat.

RL: What kinds of protections against unsustainable logging are already in place?

DH: If we're talking about formal protection that prevents any kind of commercial logging, that would only include forests that are on some public lands such as national parks, national monuments and wildlife refuges. But very few of the bottomland forests in the south are covered by those kinds of stringent protections — as I said, only 10 percent of the remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the south have any kind of formal protection from logging activities. Other regulations that exist are either not mandatory, are applied inconsistently or not adequately monitored. For example, there are some voluntary best management practices at the state level in the U.S. south. They primarily relate to water quality issues, but they're voluntary. They're generally not well enforced, and they're monitored only periodically.

RL: What about the Endangered Species Act?

The ESA relies on a landowner reporting to the wildlife authorities that they have an endangered species on their lands. In the absence of that reporting, that goes unenforced as well. When it comes to mandatory regulations for forest management in the south, there really are very few. None protect these bottomland forests from what we're seeing happen with the increased demand from the pellet industry, which is they are being clear-cut — an intensive logging practice that completely removes all of the trees from the forest.

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The Louisiana black bear, a protected subspecies of the black bear, was the original inspiration for the “Teddy Bear.” The focus of conservation efforts for more than two decades, the Louisiana black bear is now facing habitat loss due to the wood pellet industry. (image: USDA/Flickr)

RL: What's happening on the EU side of the equation?

DH: Right now we're working to stop the out-of-control demand at the EU level by calling for a reform of their current policies. The expansion of the pellet industry in the American southeast is being driven primarily by the carbon loophole, that incorrectly recognizes all biomass as carbon-neutral, and the lack of adequate sustainability safeguards that would protect sensitive forests, in EU renewable energy policies.

RL: What are your specific goals with the EU?

DH: We are asking the EU to do three things. First, close the carbon loophole and make sure that their policies adequately account for carbon emissions —recognizing only those forms of biomass that can actually reduce carbon emissions as compared to fossil fuels over the near-term. Second, increase the rigor of their sustainability standards to make sure that none of the biomass is coming from sensitive forest ecosystems, such as bottomland hardwood forests. And third, cap the amount of biomass that would be eligible under current policies because there is a very limited supply of what could be considered lower carbon and more sustainable biomass out there in the marketplace. Simply put, the scale of demand from converting all of these power facilities is going to exceed the actual availability of low carbon, more sustainable biomass. They need to cap it or they will cause irreparable harm to sensitive forests here in the southern U.S. and end up increasing carbon emissions at a critical time for addressing climate change.

RL: Is there an economic benefit to the south with the wood pellet industry?

DH: The wood pellet industry likes to say that there is an economic benefit to the south. They say that this sector creates jobs and helps the economy to recover. What they don’t say however, is that it is heavily subsidized through government financial support in the UK and in the EU more broadly. The activity of creating pellets in the southeast and shipping them across the Atlantic to the UK or other member states in the EU would not be economic if it weren't for these subsidies.

Drax Power, which is the largest energy producer in the UK and has converted three of their facilities to burning biomass, stands to receive around 660 million British pounds in subsidies in 2016 alone. They are currently the largest user of wood pellets from the southern United States, but are only able to do this because they are receiving all of this government money. If it wasn't for that, they wouldn't have gone this direction. It wouldn't have penciled out. The jobs that are being created in the south for the pellet industry hinge on the continuation of these subsidies, which are very dicey at this point and not guaranteed over the long-term. The UK has already eliminated one of the subsidies for this sector and they could very well eliminate the others over the next few years. When those financial supports go, the economic legs sustaining the pellet industry will collapse, and so will the jobs.

RL: What is your prognosis if the wood pellet industry in the south continues business as usual? Are we looking at the permanent destruction of these forests in some years?

DH: I believe we are. Some of these forests were cut many, many years ago and have only just started to recover. It can take 100 years or more for bottomland hardwood forests to recover, if they ever do. They are very sensitive. Because they are wetland forests, they are very dependent upon the water that they live in and around, the hydrology of the system. If that system is severely impacted through clear-cut logging, some of these forests will actually never fully recover.

Furthermore, the species that are reliant on these forests, especially the older bottomland hardwood forests, will also disappear. The younger bottomland forests that are trying to recover from these clear-cuts cannot provide the kind of habitat needed for some of these species, so we will simply lose those older forests and the species that are associated with them.

RL: If you had to pick an endangered species to be the face of this issue, which would you pick?

DH: That's a hard question because there are a lot of endangered or imperiled species out there that we've looked at, but the Louisiana black bear is certainly high up on that list. There are a number of songbirds that I would put on that list as well. But in terms of an iconic sort of animal that is important to the system, it would be the Louisiana black bear.

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