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