“Our Forests Aren’t Fuel” campaign launched

The following blog post is from the Dogwood Alliance’s Dana Smith and appeared on their blog:

Today, Dogwood Alliance and our long-time partner, Natural Resources Defense Council, launched Our Forests Aren’t Fuel, a campaign to stop the large-scale burning of trees for electricity. It’s no coincidence that the launch of this new effort coincides with today’s Wall Street Journal front-page story exposing how Southern wetland forests are being clearcut, turned into pellets and shipped overseas to be burned in European power stations.

For over a year now, we’ve been doing our homework, researching the market trends, identifying the major corporate players and investigating the impacts on the ground. We’ve been cultivating partnerships and allies (check out the 75 groups signed on to our campaign platform) and informing the media, including, of course, the Wall Street Journal, who we extensively briefed on the issues leading up to today’s article. We’ve been preparing for just the right moment to expose the inconvenient truths about burning wood for electricity: it not only threatens wildlife and water resources in the world’s most biologically diverse temperate forest, but it also threatens to accelerate climate change, endangering life as we know it on planet Earth. Today, the smoking gun is revealed, with evidence that trees from clearcut 100-year old wetland forests in the Southern US were burned as fuel to generate electricity.

Misdirected renewable energy policies both here in the US and in Europe treat biomass, including the burning of trees, as renewable energy just like solar and wind. With billions of dollars of government subsidies available, over the past several years, major utility companies have been converting coal burning power plants to wood, even though there is a mounting body of scientific evidence that burning trees for electricity releases more carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal. In a rush to find much-needed alternatives to fossil fuels, this inconvenient truth, along with evidence that it’s destroying forests, has been largely ignored.

The Economist recently hit the nail on the head in depicting the practice of burning trees for electricity with an illustration of a caveman lighting a fire with sticks in hand. With the emerging technologies of solar and wind power, burning trees as fuel for electricity is indeed quite primitive and clumsy by comparison. The use of forests as a primary fuel source is taking us backward, not forward, on the path to clean energy.

Europe is currently at the forefront of this rush to burn, which has led to an explosion of new facilities here in the South that are chopping down our forests, turning them into wood pellets and exporting them across the Atlantic. Currently, the Southern US is the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets. Wood pellet exports to Europe from the South doubled from 1.5 million tons to over 3 million tons over the past year and are projected to double again to 6 million tons by 2015.

Trees from clearcut wetland forests like this one are being turned into wood pellets and shipped overseas to burn for electricity.

At the head of the pack in Europe is Drax, who is investing billions of dollars to convert dirty old coal plants to wood burning. Much of the wood comes in the form of pellets from the Southern US. Drax is not alone, with many of Europe’s largest utilities including Electrabel, GDF Suez, Dong, and Forth burning wood pellets imported from the US South to generate electricity as well.

Domestic utilities here in the South are not far behind the Europeans. All of the top utilities in the South already have some capacity to burn wood for electricity with plans for further expansion in the future. Currently, Dominion Power in Virginia leads the pack. Other companies are not far behind like Southern Company, Duke Power, TVA, and Florida Power & Lights, who all have plans of their own.

The largest company pelletizing forests in the South is Maryland-based Enviva. Though they claim that the trees they use come from “sustainable forestry”, Enviva ‘s sourcing of wood from clearcut cypress tupelo wetland forests along the North Carolina Virginia coast was revealed today by not only the Wall Street Journal but also the BBC.

What an embarrassment this must be to Virginia’s Dominion Power and Drax in the UK, both of whom rely on Enviva for wood to burn. Drax purchases wood pellets exported to Europe by Enviva and Dominion Power buys the leftover tops and limbs from Enviva’s operations. Both Drax and Dominion claim that they hold their wood suppliers to high standards of forestry. The fact that Enviva has been caught sourcing from clearcut wetlands is yet another inconvenient truth I am sure these companies don’t want to hear. I suspect the other huge wood pellet companies, including Georgia Biomass, Green Circle, and more have some inconvenient truths of their own that will come out in due time.

Before that happens, however, these companies can make the right choice. The leaders in this fiasco, Dominion Power, Drax and Enviva, can set a better example by choosing not to burn trees for electricity and announcing their leadership in developing non-destructive, clean energy sources that will actually reduce carbon emissions. As leading developers of forests as a fuel source, these companies now have an opportunity to take swift and decisive action before additional investments are made and the problem reaches a scale that is irreversible for our forests and climate.

Our wetland forests provide critical habitat to countless species of plants and animals, and they protect coastal communities from flooding and serve as vital carbon sinks. Our wetland forests are many things, but they are NOT fuel.

Now, more than ever, we should fast-track investment in clean energy such as solar and wind while simultaneously accelerating efforts to protect forests. Our forests are vital for clean air, clean drinking water, flood control, wildlife habitat, and protect us from climate change. They should not be burnt for electricity – our forests aren’t fuel.

10 Comments

  1. OK…so here in Oregon, billions of board feet are clearcut and shipped to Asia’s mills each year, while the timber industry sets it’s crosshairs on federal land to cut for the mills on US soil. Is the issue here our dislike for the purpose of the cut? Either way, we clearcut our resources (and propose to clearcut them in the O&C proposal…and I know those logs don’t go overseas, however the clearcut would happen anyway) and ship the goods overseas. In the discourse, management of our forests is aimed at cutting on Federal land while management of the resource itself goes way beyond federal land. Time for the politicians to see a larger picture.

  2. If you ever look at current pictures of our federal forests in the Rockies or in the west most of them are full of dead trees. We can either let these trees burn up on their own, sometimes more than once, at great expense to the taxpayer, or we can try and find a use for them.
    There are vast areas of our National Forests have been burned by Forest Service managed “wildfires” since the Northwest forest plan went into effect. Billions of tons of carbon are dumped into the atmosphere every summer and lush alpine forests are turn into hot areas more like deserts. More old growth trees have been killed by “wildfire”, than were logged during the Reagan – Bush era of the eighties.
    But now instead of creating a sustainable economy we spend billions of tax dollars burning up one of the most valuable and renewable resources in the world, our public forests.
    There are enough dead trees in our forests that if only a 1/3 of it was harvested we could revitalize our rural economies and help make our forests greener and more diverse. But every time some plan is put forth the environmental community opposes it.
    Burning trees for electricity is the last use for our trees. Any trees that are big enough to make a 2 x 4s are turned into lumber. What is turned into fuel for generating electricity is the waste products.
    Our forests are one of our best sources of renewable carbon. I think is better to sequester some of that carbon than to just release into the atmosphere through wildfires and decay.
    If you live in the west you know how smoky our summer have become with the let it burn policies of the federal land managers.
    Most of our forest resources are use in this country, only a small percentage is exported. You have to pay for your imports somehow, its called trade.
    We have to be smart and keep our forests green and healthy and cutting down trees and making things out those trees can be important part of our social,economic and environmental health.
    The amount of waste that takes place in our federal forests due to environmental organizations is incredible.If the public really knew what was taking place in our federal forests they would be outraged.
    Burning wood for electricity is just part of the answer.

    • Stump needs to get some perspective. Fire emits carbon but logging is far worse, and logging adds cumulative impacts to the unavoidable natural process that fire represents. And finally, forest growth can compensate for the effects of fire, but it can’t keep up with fire plus logging not at the rates that industry tried to impose on the forests in decades past). Thankfully, we’re in a carbon rebuilding period now.

      Here are the facts:

      During “typical” fire years in the late 1990s, forest fires in western Oregon removed only about 1/50th as much carbon as logging did (0.1 TgC/yr emissions from fire vs. ~5.5 TgC/yr emissions from logging). Logging in western Oregon transfers more carbon out of forests _every_year_ than did the unprecedented (once-in-a-100-years) 2002 Biscuit fire (~5.5 TgC/yr from logging vs. ~4.1 TgC from Biscuit fire).

      Yet carbon emissions from the Biscuit fire in 2002 erased only about half of the net carbon absorbed via photosynthesis in the forests of western Oregon (~4.1 TgC from Biscuit vs. ~8.2 TgC/yr uptake from forest growth), so even during an extreme fire season forest growth still off-set 25% of Oregon’s fossil fuel emissions (~4.1 TgC uptake from forest growth vs. 15.6 TgC/yr fossil fuel emissions).

      See Law, B.E., Turner, D., et al 2004. Disturbance and climate effects on carbon stocks and fluxes across Western Oregon USA. Global Change Biology (2004) 10, 1429-1444. http://wwwdata.forestry.oregonstate.edu/terra/pubs2/GCB_822_eparegionalC.pdf

      • If you use the 80’s style of clearcutting for comparison, yes, you might have adverse impacts. This is the eco’s “go-to” method of comparisons. Yep, use an ancient style of logging to show that it is bad.

        Now, let’s do some math. The Biscuit Fire was about 500,000 acres. If we assigned a very low amount of carbon lost per acre at 10 tons per acre, we have a total of at least 5 MILLION TONS of carbon pushed into the upper atmosphere. Note that this is a VERY conservative estimate, since thick forests can spew up to 300 tons per acre. So, our total is really somewhere between 5 million tons and 150 million tons. Then there is a factor of lands so impacted that they cannot resequester as much carbon as it did before. AND how much carbon won’t be sequestered, due to dead forest on the Biscuit?? And how much GHG’s continue to spew into the atmosphere, from many millions of dead trees?

        Finally, why are fossil fuels even in here? Apples to guavas?!?

        • RE: Biscuit.

          Larry, and how many of those 500,000 acres were burned (at a very high severity) by USFS/US Gov’t lit backburns? And how much extra carbon was sequestered in the year following the 2002 Biscuit fire due to the tremendous regrowth of plants, forbes, trees? How about the following 3 years? 5 years? and now 10 years?

          • The backburns were a last-ditch effort to keep the fire from burning into Grants Pass and Cave Junction. I have already posted a description of why Incident Commanders made those choices. I have also posted pictures of areas in the middle of the fire that burned at high intensities. With 500,000 acres, there surely is a variety of intensities and vegetation. The fact that less than 10% of the 500,000 acres were salvaged speaks volumes about Forest Service “intent”. So, compare that “tremendous regrowth” with the area BEFORE the Biscuit burned. Also, compare how much carbon was stored BEFORE the Biscuit burned to what exists today.

            Does anyone think that the Biscuit area is better off now, than before the fire? Does anyone think that the impacts are negligible? Does anyone think that harvesting only the dead trees (plus hazard trees) has “destroyed” the land? I keep saying that we need to analyze the cumulative effects of doing nothing. Neither side wants to do that, it seems.

      • Seems like anonymous-posting “stump” is giving some perspective….the perspective of the Oregon Logging Industry, that is. Thanks, as always, for posting some scientific information and facts, Tree.

  3. Pingback: The bonfire of insanity: Woodland is shipped 3,800 miles and burned in Drax power | A New Century of Forest Planning

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