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Europe’s biomass boom is destroying America’s forests

November 28, 2015

By Paul Homewood




I’ve covered this issue in the past, but a new report from the US Natural Resources Defense Council provides yet more evidence of the damage being to done to natural forests there by European demand for biomass, fuelled by climate driven subsidies.





The report describes how demand for wood pellets has been booming:


Wood pellet exports from the United States doubled from 1.6 million tons in 2012 to 3.2 million tons in 2013. They increased again, by nearly 40 percent, from 2013 to 2014 and are expected to reach 5.7 million tons in 2015. Wood pellet manufacturing in the region is expected to continue skyrocketing, with production estimates as high as 70 million metric tons by 2020.

To manufacture wood pellets, mills in the Southeast cart in truckload after truckload of raw material harvested from the region’s forests to their facilities where they compress sawdust or grind up whole trees and other large forest residuals into uniform pellets. These pellets are then loaded onto ships and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to be burned in European power stations. Wood pellet manufacturers and their major customers claim that pellets from these mills are composed entirely of sawdust and other mill residues, tree trimmings, and diseased or “problem” trees not suitable as timber.

However, studies have concluded that logging residuals alone are unlikely to meet biomass fuel market demand and that healthy, whole trees (e.g., pulpwood) will be needed. Our research, along with the research of other organizations, shows that the harvest of whole trees is already taking place—and that these trees are coming not only from plantations. This report is the first to reveal the potential scale of the pressure on southeastern forests from operating and proposed pellet mill manufacturers in the region. Working with the Conservation Biology Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council has compiled data showing the troublesome geographic nexus between unprotected forests in the region and existing and proposed wood pellet manufacturing facilities, placing the threats to these forests in stark visual relief.

Existing and proposed pellet mills, such as those owned by U.S. pellet manufacturing giant Enviva and British utility company Drax Power, are sited not just within harvest range of plantations but within range of unprotected, natural bottomland hardwood forests. Nearly every proposed pellet plant—and several current plants—are sourcing from areas that include critical habitat for up to 25 species that are federally listed as imperiled or endangered. Seen here in totality for the first time, the pressure on forests in this region from the biomass industry is nearly ubiquitous.



What’s at stake biologically?


The forests being impacted by wood pellet mills in the Southeast are largely the biologically rich wetland forests, also known as bottomland hardwood forests. The Southeast covers around 16 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states yet contains over 65 percent of the nation’s remaining bottomland hardwood forests. They grow in stream and broad river floodplains in a mixed canopy of trees, such as towering bald cypress and swamp tupelo, red maple, green ash, American elm, and black gum, as well as numerous species of oak trees that can live for hundreds of years and are considered integral to river and coastal wetland systems.

Nearly all of the region’s bottomland hardwood forests have been impacted ever since European settlement began. Large areas were drained and converted to agriculture that continues to this day or were devoured by urban development. It has been estimated that only around 20 percent of pre-settlement bottomland hardwood forests still remain, and because of this decline, these biologically important forests have been the focus of active restoration over recent decades. For the surviving bottomland hardwood forests, successive waves of logging over many decades have razed one forest after another, with slow recovery in between. As a result, what some call “old growth” forests in the region may be only 80 years old.

The Southeast United States is one of the most biologically rich regions in North America, supported by a mild climate, diverse geology and soils, and an abundance of water. The World Wildlife Fund calls southeastern forests “some of the most biologically important habitats in North America,” and the region has been identified as globally outstanding with respect to species richness and endemism (species found nowhere else) for salamanders, trees, land snails, fishes, mussels, and crayfishes. The region contains the highest concentration of valuable wetlands in all of North America, with many terrestrial and aquatic animals depending on these forests, including numerous at-risk species.



One of the big problems identified in the report is that biomass companies are moving into these vulnerable areas in such large numbers that they will simply overwhelm sustainable sources of wood.


As demonstrated in the previous section, protection for these important forests in the Southeast (particularly older stands) is woefully inadequate in every state. Today millions of acres of remaining mature forests are within the sourcing radii of existing and proposed wood pellet mills. Many are on the Atlantic coast, a favorite location for pellet mills because of ease of export of pellets to European markets.




The idea that logging practices are sustainable, either from an environmental or CO2 point of view, is firmly squashed:


Confronted with questions about sourcing wood in sensitive ecosystems, the wood pellet industry argues that these trees will grow back. That’s true, but the ecological values of a regenerating forest are far fewer than those of older stands. The complex vertical structure of a mature bottomland system, vital for the highest levels of bird diversity, for example, may never be achieved thanks to even-age management with short rotation periods (a common management practice in the U.S. South that relies on clearcutting all trees over repeated, short time frames). Furthermore, restoring bottomland hardwood forests is challenging because of the time necessary for these forests to mature and because altered flood patterns can reduce the diversity of trees and plants when a forest regenerates.

It takes an entire human lifetime to regain the values of a forest that has been cleared under the best of conditions. Even if these forests eventually do recover, in the decades long interim, biodiversity, carbon capture, and all the other benefits of a mature forest will be forfeited and the ecological integrity of the site further compromised or in some instances completely lost.


Recent science and our own modeling show that wood pellets made in part of whole trees from bottomland hardwoods in the Atlantic plain of the U.S. Southeast— even in relatively small proportions— will emit carbon pollution comparable to or in excess of fossil fuels for approximately five decades. This five-decade time period is significant: climate policy imperatives require dramatic short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and emissions from these pellets will persist in the atmosphere well past the time that significant reductions are needed.


Biomass operators, such as Drax, have continually insisted that they will only use wood from sustainable sources, such as offcuts and diseased trees. The report states that this will not be possible:


Studies have concluded that true wood waste alone will likely be unable to meet bioenergy demands in the southern region. Given that lower-carbon biomass sources are limited in supply, it is equally important that a cap be imposed on the use of biomass at levels that can be sustainably sourced (taking into consideration other competing uses—the existing traditional forest products industry—and the pressing need to increase protected areas for sensitive forest types). Getting this policy signal right is critical to steering the industry away from highcarbon, ecologically damaging sources of biomass and ensuring that bioenergy projects do not adversely impact forests, carbon sinks, soil, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and water resources.


The report is damning in its conclusions:






The smug, self satisfied do-gooders in the EU should be hanging their heads in shame at the damage that their policies are bringing about.



The full report is here:


  1. Retired Dave permalink
    November 28, 2015 10:46 pm

    Well as they say Paul –

    30 years ago Greens were chaining themselves to trees, now they are burning them!!!!

    You couldn’t make it up.

    Everyday, like many of us, I get several emails begging me not to print the message to save the planet while up the road at Drax they burn thousands of tons of wood mostly from the USA. – Once again you couldn’t make it up – but they did.

  2. Green Sand permalink
    November 28, 2015 10:57 pm

    ‘Europe’s biomass boom is destroying America’s forests’

    Well it might be, but to this family provider the main problem is that it is jeopardising UK energy security.

    Jingoistic? Well, yes!

  3. Ellyssen permalink
    November 29, 2015 12:55 am

    My 2 cents is that the greedy buggers selling the wood for biomass are at least 60% of the problem.

    • Retired Dave permalink
      November 29, 2015 8:33 am

      Well yes but the European companies often own the land hey destroy.

    • PeterK permalink
      November 29, 2015 10:28 pm

      Are you sure they are not 97% of the problem?

  4. Sean permalink
    November 29, 2015 2:00 am

    It’s ironic to juxtapose the tree harvesting for firewood in the southeast while in Oregon, you cannot log old growth federal lands because of the spotted owl, even though the logging is not the cause of the owls decline. The biofuel impact on the environment goes well beyond wood pellets and the American Southeast. There are rain forests being felled in Indonesia so palm oil plantations can be planted. 40% of that oil ends up in biodiesel. Even the American corn based ethanol boom puts tremendous pressure on the number of acres tilled and the effluent from the fertilized fields ends up causing dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Just because someone believes they have good intentions does not mean that their actions don’t cause harm.

  5. Password protected permalink
    November 29, 2015 2:01 am

    What is wrong with these people?
    Damaging Earth’s biosphere is perhaps as climate affective as burning fossil fuels. Nobody knows.

  6. John F. Hultquist permalink
    November 29, 2015 3:25 am

    ” … are largely the biologically rich wetland forests, also known as bottomland hardwood forests.

    The lowest elevation parts of the above are slow moving streams and water passing through swamps.
    These act like kidneys, cleansing the water of natural and anthro-chemicals, and having many other beneficial environmental contributions.
    The “southern river-swamps” were studied by:
    Eugene Pleasants Odum

    He would be apoplectic with rage.

  7. November 29, 2015 4:00 am

    The cause of this scandalous forest destroying is the decisions taken in UK to convert the very extensive Drax coal-fired power station to biomass. This coal-fired power station in Yorkshire was originally sited there as it is very close to a major coal-mining area. The conversion decisions were based on some inexplicable EEC accounting for CO2 emissions that result in bizarre and absolutely false conclusions that burning biomass is preferable to burning coal.

    I suppose it’s the UK government/DECC that approved the Drax conversion and requires huge quantities of wood pellets, so they are responsible for creating the market for this large scale forest destruction in USA. Without this artificial biomass incentive, the market would not exist and the forests could survive. Absolute madness!

    • Retired Dave permalink
      November 29, 2015 8:42 am

      Totally agree Alan, but it is hard to blame thosewho run Drax. Government says if you continue to burn coal we will tax you to insolvency but if you burn wood we will give you subsidy piled on subsidy. What would you do?

      • CheshireRed permalink
        November 29, 2015 4:10 pm

        Exactly, Dave. If the government insist on fixing the rules to bankrupt coal power then if you owned Drax what else could you do but shift to biofuel? The whole scam is laughable, risible and immoral in equal measures.

      • November 30, 2015 1:28 am

        Could someone explain what the UK government did that resulted in Drax converting from coal to biomass. Did the UK government order Drax to either convert or otherwide close down? Or is all of this due to UK following some EEC policy or order. I’m ex-UK in Canada since the 80s.

  8. AndyG55 permalink
    November 29, 2015 6:59 am

    Where are Greenpeace, WWF etc on this..

    Isn’t their agenda to fight CORPORATE GREED that DESTROYS the environment ?

    • FrankSW permalink
      November 29, 2015 7:56 am

      RSPB and Greenpeace appear to be against biomass as well, see here

      Click to access biomass_report_tcm9-326672.pdf

      • Retired Dave permalink
        November 29, 2015 9:00 am

        Frank – it is once again a case of Green NGOs mandating a practice which they later find is wrong.

        The same happened with biofuels as sean says above. A decade or so ago the Green NGOs were demanding a 10% biofuel content in vehicle fuels. If you hunt around you can find briefing publications for governments at the time. Now that the ecological and human disaster of it is evident to all they try to make out they nevr thought it was a good idea.

        The pattern is always the same – scream for the action, vilify anyone who opposes, eventually say they didn’t sugest it in the first place. Unfortunately for them the Internet always indexes their folly and deceit.

        You also see similar patterns with atmospheric warming pauses, sea ice etc. except the ed game to accept reality.

  9. Joe Public permalink
    November 29, 2015 9:23 am

    “To manufacture wood pellets, mills in the Southeast cart in truckload after truckload of raw material harvested from the region’s forests to their facilities …”

    Yet the green anti-frackers protest against the truckload after truckload traffic of water being taken to the temporary drilling rigs.

    • Retired Dave permalink
      November 29, 2015 10:18 am

      Yes Joe – If you are a green person (and who isn’t at heart) you are supposed to disconnect your brain and believe any crap that GREEN central feeds you. The High Command does not like debate and we all come across its most fervent foot soldiers I expect.

      The Mantra follows the same trend always, just as with Global Warming. Express any position other than unsupportable extremism and get vilified and ranted at.

      On the positive side – I detect a slow change in some environmental organisations and now “environmentalists” are starting to oppose wind turbines on environment grounds. The real Greens (my greens) are apoplectic about the logging in SE USA and opposition is growing to the Dogger Bank wind farm array. Am I being too optimistic? Probably.

  10. John Smith permalink
    November 29, 2015 10:27 am

    Not just a problem for America. Take a look at Stevens Croft Biomass power station, Lockerbie and the destruction of Scottish forests to fuel it not to mention the proposal to build a biomass plant at St Andrews University.

    Stevens Croft burns around 475,000t of “sustainable” wood/year. Not surprising to me because most of it seems to pass our cottage on lorries. Stevens Croft is supposed to “save” 140,000t of CO2/year, but what about the pollution emitted by the fleet of lorries carrying the logs and I am thinking about real pollution, not CO2.

  11. November 29, 2015 11:11 am

    Have they found a type of tree that can grow to full size in the time it takes a felled one to be shipped to Europe and burnt? Don’t think so.

  12. November 29, 2015 11:16 am

    Paul previously asked DECC whether burning wood produced as much CO2 as burning coal and he was told no, it didn’t. Actually this is wrong, wood produces a bit more. I wrote a small piece on this at but the answer is that coal produces 906 kgCO2/MWh and Drax style wood-pellets 916. The 1018 Paul was told includes “life cycle accounting”.

    • A C Osborn permalink
      November 29, 2015 3:38 pm

      Does that include all the Transport fuel costs, the drying of the wood, the pelletising process, the special storage requirements and the fact you need twice as much wood as Coal?

  13. NeilC permalink
    November 29, 2015 11:36 am

    Like all good environmentalists such as, WWW, FoE, RSPB, Greenpi$$ they never think of the consequences to the environment. It is their doing, the ruination of many millions of trees, It is their fault, by lobbying governments to change their energy generation policies, and being payed by the governments to do it.

    Why anyone would give money to these so called charities is beyond me.

  14. November 29, 2015 12:42 pm

    Once again, there are more carcinogens put out by burning wood than by fossil fuels. Going, going, gone are the absolutely magnificent forests along the southern rivers. But the liberals can feel good about themselves and those who want to rid the world of capitalism are pleased.

  15. November 29, 2015 1:45 pm

    Reblogged this on WeatherAction News.

  16. Svend Ferdinandsen permalink
    November 29, 2015 10:23 pm

    You could say that the Obama rhetoric has caused it. He claims that CO2 is the worst thread we have ever seen, so in that respect what is a few trees against such a devastating problem. Should’nt you grandchildren be able to walk in the woods …..?

  17. December 4, 2015 8:56 pm

    I believe there are more pellet mills than what the map shows. Five years ago I was driving an 18 wheeler. I picked up wood pellet loads at 2 different West Virginia mills and delivered them to retail stores to be used in wood stoves.

  18. catweazle666 permalink
    December 6, 2015 9:17 pm

    Guess who runs the British end of this “Green” scam.

    Chris Huhne’s new job sheds light on cosy relationship between DECC and energy companies

    The recent revelation that former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne has secured a job worth £100,000 a year with Zilkha Biomass Energy has been met with cynicism by bioenergy campaigners.

    Oliver Munnion, Campaigner for Biofuelwatch said: “Chris Huhne is being rewarded for his ardent support for the biomass industry during his time as Energy and Climate Change Secretary. He oversaw vast subsidies and other support mechanisms being put in place for bioenergy which have resulted in a rush for biomass that could see the UK’s demand for wood rise to 90 million tonnes a year – nine times the UK’s annual production.

    Straight out of jail for perverting the course of justice and while still under license straight into a £100k job that probably involves no more than a couple of half days per week.

    Anyone else would be lucky to get a job stacking shelves.

    The whole energy establishment is corrupt from top to bottom.

  19. April 2, 2016 10:43 am

    In 1500, the Netherlands counted 1 million inhabitants and almost all trees were cut. The wood for windmills and ships was imported from Norway. At present there are 17 million Dutch living in 10 times higher prosperity and the Netherlands counts several state parks with forests. Thanks to fossil fuels.
    Increase of prosperity always amounts to a diminished dependence on land and nature.
    Burning wood is the practise of primitive societies.

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