Photo: Richard Weil/Flickr

A Fuel’s Errand

The E.U. wants to burn wood taken from threatened American habitat — and we’re recklessly accommodating its wishes. Can we really not see the forest for the trees?

You don’t have to travel far from some of the South’s bigger and better-known cities — Norfolk, Biloxi, Savannah, Baton Rouge — to travel hundreds of millions of years into our ecological past. The bottomland hardwood forests of the southeastern United States are slow-growing, swamplike ecosystems found on low-lying floodplains. In addition to a staggering variety of tree species, many of which have fascinatingly evolved over millennia to thrive in so much water, these wetlands play host to a rich array of wildlife: songbirds, bobcats, beavers, otters, bats, bears, deer, salamanders, snakes, and more. Some of these species (like the Louisiana black bear and the Florida panther) are endangered or threatened; bottomland hardwood forests provide them with prime habitat that’s crucial for their recovery.

Development, agriculture, and logging have taken their toll: Such activity has led to the loss of about 20 million acres of the South’s bottomland hardwood forests over the past 250 years, leaving only 4 million acres. Now a new threat has appeared — one that couldn’t have been foreseen only a generation ago, and one that’s marked by a poignant irony.

To comply with new clean-power regulations imposed by the European Union, a number of large European power plants have sought out new, biomass-based fuels that are said to burn “cleaner” than coal and other fossil fuels. And their search has led them to the bottomland forests of the American South, where an abundance of trees and a dearth of regulatory protections give them exactly what they’re looking for: a supply of woody biomass for the E.U.’s sizable, and ever-expanding, market for burnable wood pellets.

For several years now, wood pellets have enjoyed favorable press as a “sustainable” source of bioenergy composed exclusively of logging residuals (i.e., tree trimmings, sawdust, and mill residue). In part because of flawed E.U. policies that blindly accept the idea of wood pellets as intrinsically green — and in part because of enormous E.U. and member-state government subsidies encouraging their manufacture — wood pellets have become the favored bioenergy source of Europe’s energy sector. In 2013, the United States exported nearly 3.2 million tons of wood pellets to large-scale power plants in the E.U. By 2020, it’s estimated that we could be exporting nearly 70 million tons of wood, most of which would come from Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia.

It has become abundantly clear that logging residuals and mill waste alone won’t meet this growing demand. In fact, European fuel companies and their American pellet suppliers are already using whole, living trees for pellets. Between the huge subsidies that bankroll the demand in the E.U. and the relative lack of federal and state protections afforded to most of these American wetlands, the deck is stacked against the four million acres of bottomland hardwood forest that we’ve managed not to destroy. (Another irony: One reason that so many European energy companies have turned to American forests for their woody-biomass needs is that Europe does a better job of protecting its wetlands and forests than we do.)

SAVE SOUTHERN FORESTS! Urge European leaders to stop destroying our native habitat for their dirty fuel.

Earlier this month, a new report published by NRDC (in cooperation with the Conservation Biology Institute) became the first to reveal that the intense pressure on southeastern forests from the multinational wood-pellet industry has reached the point of an emergent crisis. By comparing a map of the location of pellet-manufacturing facilities in the aforementioned southern states with a map showing some of the region’s most vulnerable forests, the report shows how much of a threat current and proposed facilities pose to these largely unprotected wetlands. Tellingly — and troublingly — bottomland hardwood forests, including those containing critical habitat for up to 25 imperiled or endangered species, are within the potential harvest range of nearly all of the proposed pellet plants, as well as several current plants.

It’s bad enough that the wood pellet industry has its sights set on the use of whole, living trees as opposed to sticking to true wood waste. But making matters worse is the claim that wood from whole trees is a “clean” source of energy. It isn’t. As a number of recent studies have shown, many forms of biomass — especially those derived from forests — end up yielding more carbon pollution than fossil fuels do. In fact, our own study shows that even if a small proportion of whole trees are cut down to make wood pellets, and those pellets are then burned in power plants to produce electricity, the resulting carbon pollution will be comparable to or in excess of the pollution resulting from fossil fuels for the next five decades. And as any climate scientist will tell you, we don’t have five decades to spare when it comes to reversing our greenhouse gas emissions and curbing climate change. We don’t even have one decade to spare.

Some sources of wood-based bioenergy could represent an improvement over fossil fuels: industrial mill waste, for example. And if the process is approached and handled thoughtfully, other biomass — such as switchgrass and short-rotation woody crops — can be grown on degraded, nonforested land and harvested in such a way that it doesn’t add carbon to the atmosphere or threaten native ecosystems. Great care must be taken, however, to ensure that these new biomass crops do not usurp acreage for food production.

But the trees in our natural forests aren’t in this category — not even remotely. Two cheers, then, for our European neighbors’ formal commitment to finding and utilizing clean alternatives to fossil fuels. But if they want three cheers, they should focus primarily on genuinely renewable forms of energy, such as solar and wind power. They’ll also need to start being completely transparent regarding the provenance of their woody biomass — and commit publicly to never, ever using whole trees as one of the sources for their wood pellets.

For our part, we must make sure that policymakers and corporations don’t continue to mischaracterize all biomass as intrinsically carbon-beneficial or sustainable. We also need to direct our public subsidies and other support mechanisms to true 21st-century renewables, like wind and solar, and limit our support to those sources of biomass that reduce carbon emissions within a time frame that’s relevant to fighting climate change. While we’re at it, we need much stronger protections for our bottomland hardwood forests — including more permanently protected areas and rigorous, independently verified biomass sustainability standards. And, crucially, we must impose caps on overall biomass use so we can be sure we’re using it at rates that won’t encourage the destruction of unique forest ecosystems.

Forests are wildlife habitat. Forests are carbon sinks. Forests are beautiful places for hiking, camping, and exploring. What forests aren’t — and what they never should be — is fuel.

Written with Jeff Turrentine