Wood Pellets, Southern Forests, and Bottomland Hardwoods

Enviva’s wood pellet production plant in Ahoskie, N.C., is booming because of the European Union’s aggressive renewable and low-carbon policies. Wood pellets are co-fired with coal to lower the carbon footprint of electricity. Photo: Enviva.

This is a follow up to a previous discussion about wood chips and the Southeast, including “logging and draining wetlands”. I found an interesting article from TreeSource. The author is Marcus Kauffman of the Oregon Department of Forestry. There’s quite a bit about the carbon angle and how that relates to wood pellets from the SE.

The author quotes Dr. Bob Abt of NC State:

A growing body of research shows that using low-value trees for bioenergy drives up the value of forested ground, which leads to increases in forest cover. Call it the price effect – or the classic principles of supply and demand at work.

“It’s the fact that when you’re increasing prices to landowners, that kicks in all the benefits that you need on the carbon side,” Abt said. “When prices go up, forestry becomes more profitable and there’s actually more trees on the landscape because of that extra demand.”

Abt explained that marginal land in the South fluctuates between agriculture and forestry. Landowners seek the use that will yield the best return.

The South has a long history where as demand increases for wood, forest land increases and with it intensive management, said Abt. “It’s been empirically shown in the South that increased demand for trees leads to more trees on the landscape.”

But then the article talks about the possibility of cutting trees where they otherwise wouldn’t be cut, in sensitive areas:

But does the price effect cut both ways? Do higher prices push ecologically sensitive lands to market when they would be better off left intact? Demand for wood pellets can lead to increased forest cover, but can it also lead to the destruction of valuable habitat?

That is the critique leveled by environmental groups concerned with protecting the Southeast’s bottomland hardwood forest, a unique forest type valued for its beauty and biodiversity.

“Intact bottomland hardwood forests are really cool,” said Amanda Mahaffey, Northeast region director for the Forest Stewards Guild. “They’re just beautiful primeval systems when they’re intact. When you lose them, then that’s really different. It’s a different visceral effect than harvesting a pine plantation.”

According to information provided by Enviva, in the first half of 2017 bottomland hardwood forests provided just 3 percent of the company’s supply. The remainder came from pine/hardwood forests (38 percent), southern yellow pine forests (31 percent), mill residuals (sawdust, shavings and chips) 21 percent, 6 percent from upland hardwood forests and less than 1 percent from arboricultural sources (urban tree trimming).

In response to concerns from environmental critics, Enviva partnered with a broad range of stakeholders to convene the Bottomland Hardwood Task Force and charged it with implementing ways to improve its sourcing from bottomland forests.

“I think Enviva was looking to improve their understanding,” said Mahaffey. “How could they be better forest stewards and help to sustain the resource while they are extracting from it? They are in it for good. They’re trying to sustain a renewable resource and lower the overall carbon output.”

For Enviva, the task force shifted the company’s procurement process from macro to micro – enabling managers to make better decisions about where to source raw materials and how to protect sensitive lands.

“As we evolve, we’ve moved from a macro-policy of simply avoiding sensitive lands to a much more micro-controlled process – land by land, tract by tract, GPS coordinate by GPS coordinate strategy to ensure we can actually influence outcomes,” said Meth, the vice president at Enviva. “We go to the micro-level [with the landowners] and sometimes we find areas that are literally along the river. The best outcome is not to harvest those lands and provide compensation to the landowner.”

The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities helped Enviva identify which sensitive bottomlands should be taken out of production via a conservation easement.

“For me personally, when you realize there’s a gap you are obligated to take a leadership position,” Meth said. “We have been heavily scrutinized and we intend to stay in those areas a long time. As leaders in the industry, we needed to bring people together and seek the knowledge that will create better outcomes.”

The company launched the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund in December 2015. During the first two years of the partnership, the fund committed $1 million to seven projects that, when completed, will protect 10,500 acres of sensitive wetland forest and other valuable habitats.

Clearly, forests and wood energy are playing important roles in our low-carbon future.

8 thoughts on “Wood Pellets, Southern Forests, and Bottomland Hardwoods”

  1. Enviva so far as been long on talk, short on action. They convene groups (legit resource and research professionals not crazy enviro’s), but to date they haven’t been serious about follow-up. Going to be great fledgling habitat for Swainson’s warblers, unfortunately there won’t be any nesting habitat that is required in the preceding 2 months.

  2. This is related: a brand new report from the Southern Environmental Law Center looking at the 3 plants that belong to Drax (the UK company that is the biggest purchaser of Enviva pellets). This is not about Enviva. However. This is a good piece for a different take on the “carbon neutrality” assumptions (i.e. soft climate science denial) central to justifying the existence of the export oriented wood pellet industry.


    • In the executive summary, the Southern Law Center report says,

      “To compare the carbon LCA balance between use of pellets versus an alternative electricity scenario, we assumed a change in forest management in NIPF softwood plantations from a no-thinning scenario (i.e., no pellet demand) to a bioenergy scenario where NIPF softwood plantations are managed on a 25-year rotation with one thinning prior to a clearcut final harvest.”

      The latter scenario is a common practice — a precommercial thinning, one commercial thinning, and then a final harvest and replanting. The no-thinning scenario doesn’t make much sense, economically, as commercial thinning produces revenue and increases the volume at final harvest.

      On page 16, it states: “Two forest management scenarios were modeled: The ‘No thinning scenario’ simulates practices in the absence of pellet mills where thinnings would be forgone due to an absence of markets for the generated biomass. The ‘bioenergy scenario’ assumes that the thinnings are implemented since the pellet feedstock market generates enough revenue to implement the thinnings. Planting density and rotation length were kept the same for both scenarios.

      Thinnings are conducted regardless of a market for biomass: A commercial thinning produces “chip-n-saw” and pulp logs, which are much more valuable than the material sent to pullet mills. The report’s authors fail to account for these products.

      I may be wrong – I’m more familiar with wood markets in the western US – but these assumptions make the report of dubious value.

    • Gary, maybe you can help. I have been trying to figure out why determining a general “carbon neutrality” is something that is much talked about (like the EPA discussion), when it seems to me that the carbon impacts are specific to the situation. Like in the South, people are not just going to let their trees grow forever so that isn’t a viable alternative. Or in the west, people would burn the material in the air.. or…???

  3. Here’s Forest2Market’s response to an August 7 Wall Street Journal article, “Wood Pellets Draw Fire as Alternative to Coal,” which says that “The wood-pellet business is thriving based on the argument that trees are a clean-energy alternative to coal, but the science behind it is facing challenges from researchers who say cutting and burning trees takes a heavy environmental toll.”


    F2M: The WSJ article “…gives a fair accounting of both sides of the larger wood pellet debate, there are nevertheless several misconceptions that remain pervasive among the public due to incomplete reporting, including this article.”


    False claim #2: The use of biomass for energy results in a carbon deficit

    The forest product industry rightly claims that trees harvested are replaced with new trees. Obviously, mature trees are harvested and small seedlings are planted in their place. Some environmentalists claim that, while trees do grow back in time, it takes decades for each harvested tree to be replaced. That is a true statement, however, it is an incorrect assessment of what is occurring on a landscape or regional level where there is a continuum of planting, managing, thinning and harvesting taking place. So, what really matters is whether forest inventory is increasing or decreasing in a region. As stated above, we are currently growing more volume of trees than is being harvested and, therefore, there is no carbon deficit when viewed at the proper landscape level.


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