U.S. Forests Are Being Clear-Cut to Supply Biomass Energy Industry, Report Finds

A section of forested wetland in North Carolina, which was cut for wood that was made into pellets for fuel.

A section of forested wetland in North Carolina, which was cut for wood that was made into pellets for fuel. NRDC

Forests in the U.S. Southeast are being devastated by demand for wood pellets to power biomass energy plants in Europe and Japan, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Dogwood Alliance, and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

According to the report, mature, native hardwood forests in places like North Carolina, Virginia, and along the Gulf Coast are being clear-cut, with whole trees and other large-diameter wood then trucked to processing mills run by Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet producer. These pellets, the report said, are then being shipped to power plants such as Drax Power Station in the United Kingdom, Ørsted biomass facilities in Denmark, and increasingly to generating stations in Japan. Forests in the U.S. Southeast are being logged at four times the rate as those in the Amazon, according to the UN’s biodiversity report released last month.

In a statement, Enviva said the environmental groups’ report was “full of outdated and outright false assertions, as well as information presented without context in order to intentionally mislead.”

Many industrialized nations — including the U.S., the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Japan — have classified biomass a carbon-neutral source of energy, and have incorporated it as key part of their strategies to reduce emissions and combat climate change. Wood pellets are typically advertised to be made from low-grade wood such as branches and sawdust and other timber scraps. But the environmental groups said their investigators followed trucks carrying whole trees to Enviva facilities, “mature trees that have been locking up carbon for decades or more. Burning them spews that carbon into the atmosphere, worsening our climate crisis,” the groups noted in a press release.

Enviva said in its statement that not all of the material from the tract cited in the report came to Enviva. The company said it took “the low-quality wood that was generated as a by-product of this traditional sawmill harvest,” which amounted to about 30 percent of the wood harvested on the tract.

But the environmental groups criticized the practice of using wood pellets as a biomass fuel for power plants. “No one can look at these horrific images and conclude that slashing forests and burning the wood for electricity is a viable solution to our climate crisis,” said Rita Frost, campaigns director at Dogwood Alliance.

For more on the debate over biomass, click here.

June 20, 2019: This article has been updated to include a response from Enviva.