How marginalized communities in the South are paying the price for ‘green energy’ in Europe

Belinda Joyner lives in Northampton County. The county’s population is predominantly Black.

“We’ve been disrespected all our lives,” said resident Belinda Joyner, 68, who has been fighting environmental racism in her community for decades, “and we’re still being disrespected.”

Check out the huge story feature from CNN on how the wood pellet industry is harming communities, destroying local economies and gobbling up forests all in the name of climate change even though it is hurting the climate not helping.

14 thoughts on “How marginalized communities in the South are paying the price for ‘green energy’ in Europe”

    • Thank you for the video, Tyler. It’s another example of how we are rapidly destroying our planet; from overfishing in the oceans with industrial factory-sized fishing boats to over extracting or contaminating our ancient aquifers through fracking, to destroying our waterways with toxic effluent and agricultural runoff creating extensive dead zones, to clear-cutting our forests, to eliminating wildlife habitat by expanding our urban footprint, to … I could go on and on. ugh. Humans are way out of control and we need to back off, or else. It’s time to heed the warnings and apply sustainable ecological principles to preserve and restore our vital ecosystems; time is running out. Corporations and politicians need to listen to us little people, especially the poorest, most marginalized populations. But, the saddest truth is that if they cease and desist in one place, they’ll just move elsewhere and exploit the resources in another country; it’s an international problem.

      We definitely could benefit from indigenous wisdom and learn to live within nature instead of trying to engineer it or dominate it for immediate economic profit.

  1. It seems to me that there are three different ideas here (or arguments for why chips to Europe is bad):

    1. Adding another plant to this community raised the PM 2.5, noise, etc.
    This seems like it is a siting problem. It seems like lots of rural North Carolina is relatively poor. However, plants of various kinds provide jobs. So there might be members of the community not interviewed here, that might support having such industry, jobs, taxes, etc. (there are studies on this in other parts of the country). I suspect it’s more complex than this article shows.
    “Before Enviva opened its Northampton mill, the 551 square miles that make up the county were already home to three major air pollution sources — facilities required to a request a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act for emitting large amounts of air pollutants. Another three such facilities are located within two miles of the Northampton border in neighboring Halifax County.
    In 2013, Enviva became the fourth Title V permit holder in Northampton County, emitting tons of dangerous fine particles, or PM2.5, carbon monoxide and a number of what the Environmental Protection Agency calls “Hazardous Air Pollutants” — including formaldehyde and methanol.”

    (if you look at the linked map there are quite a few of these sites all over NC.)

    “All of our plants operate in compliance with their permits and federal and state prescribed emission legal standards under the permits, presenting no risk or issue to public health or environment,” Enviva said in a statement, adding that a state air quality monitor five miles from its facility found that PM2.5 levels did not “present a health risk” to county residents.
    Yet federal standards for fine particulate matter are too high and do not protect public health, according to twenty scientists who served on an EPA panel on particulate matter in 2018 and urged the administration to impose tougher pollution standards.”

    2. It sounds as if forests are being cut down for chips. But my understanding is that these are residuals from forests grown for sawlogs. Now you can argue that industrial forestry shouldn’t be allowed to occur, or you can argue that their practices are suboptimal (and I’m sure Dogwood Alliance feels this way) but.. that’s a different question than “what is the best use of material that is left over from current industrial timber operations in the SE US?”

    “Burning wood is less efficient than burning coal and releases far more carbon into the atmosphere, according to almost 800 scientists who wrote a 2018 letter to the European parliament, pushing members to amend the current directive “to avoid expansive harm to the world’s forests and the acceleration of climate change.” President Joe Biden and other world leaders received a similar letter from hundreds of climate scientists earlier this year.

    The EU directive that encouraged the pivot to biomass also left a loophole — it did not prevent the leveling of rooted trees for wood pellet production. “I can’t think of anything that harms nature more than cutting down trees and burning them,” said William Moomaw, professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University.”
    This is one of those arguments where (some) scientists make global pronouncements that may or may not be true locally.
    Scientists say (this case) causes “expansive harm” to forests? Well not exactly, they were generalizing.
    A prof of environmental policy implies that the trees are being cut down solely to be burned? Well, in this case, that doesn’t seem to be true.

    3. It seems like different folks in Europe, including technical experts/scientists, feel differently about importing chips from the SE. And somehow the EU governments are agreeing with the ones who say it’s OK. Unfortunately, this article didn’t find any of them to get their side of why they think so.
    It may even be good for the US, as biomass energy plants have been criticized for air pollution, so we get paid for our waste material, and the EU gets the local air pollution from generating the electricity. In fact, if the residues were used for paper, there might be even more chemical and air quality concerns.

    I wonder what it would take to ship residues economically from the interior west….

    • Good questions. I believe many of the answers can be found by searching for “political economics of pellets from north america to europe for electricity” or similar. My understanding is that despite claims to the contrary by the industry, whole logs are converted to pellets. I also believe the electricity generation at the receiving end—like the Drax plant in Northern England—is also neither ‘renewable’ or ‘carbon neutral,’ notwithstanding the claims to the contrary at numerous “” PR sites. (five years old, and what has changed?)

      I was engaged in policy arguments over use of biomass in Washington State and elsewhere for a few years. My conclusion is that biomass has some very limited utility as a source of electricity, and must be carefully monitored not only for bogus claims of carbon neutrality (the “neutrality” payoff is about as close to fruition as the generation of fusion power), but also for significant PM 2.5 problems, depending, as you point out, on siting. There are very few places where it makes sense to cut down live trees to burn them for electricity, and certainly not at the scale of wholesale removal of the Eastern U.S. hardwood forests to ship (using oil!) to Europe for electricity.

      • Toby, I think that’s where we’re getting lost (as westerners) in this (eastern-dominated) convo.
        The whole neutrality discussion is a bit abstract. It seems logical to me, as you say, every situation depending on location/scale etc. is different. I’ve never been able to figure out why it was important to decide on some “generic” kind of biomass. I think our country is adept enough to distinguish differences.

        I don’t need to know whether burning mitigation material (or Forest Restoration Residues) in biomass plants is carbon neutral. All it has to do is be better for the environment and safety than the alternative, which is burning it onsite. With climate change, we don’t know if we’ll even be able to get burn permits so there’s practicality as well. I suspect the EPA Science Advisory Board was not thinking about these kinds of things.

        It’s possible that there is a better solution by making some kind of products out of the material, but you would have to look at the environmental and social benefits and costs and compare.

        I think part of the problem is that biomass for energy is always put in the climate mitigation box, when it’s a tool for climate adaptation for some folks.

        I’ll ask around and see if we can find an unbiased source about the log question.

    • It’s not objectively cheap, but it is already being done in Texas to a certain extent with invasive mesquite and plantation pine residue. ~$55/ton within 200 miles of any source, essentially. Price at the plant gate in Europe is 3x that, or was a few years ago. I don’t think anyone has done research on biomass supply chains from further out, although I’ve been thinking about writing some papers on it building on my research in Texas and apply the same FIA data and pricing to AZ and NM forest (lots of thinning within 50mi of railways) residues deliverable to TX ports and Europe… Western forest thinning biomass is probably more C neutral considering the reduction in wildfire risk it can embody, depending on the harvest process. Just relatively diffuse and hard to justify economically without the fire risk reduction priced in. It’d likely be more cost effective for EU power plants to pay western utilities (in places that need more resilient grids (TX)) to build smaller gasification plants and trade C credits, if we ever get around to that.

  2. Besides the very important environmental injustice concerns, the plan to replace coal, gas, or oil energy sources with wood on a massive scale is just another misguided attempt to avoid the real problem of increasing GHG emissions and rapid loss of carbon sequestration and storage mechanisms.

    Again, here are some excerpts from Chad Hanson’s new book:

    “We need to rapidly move beyond fossil fuel consumption and simultaneously draw down the large, human-caused excesses of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

    Many forests around the world are currently far below their carbon sequestration and storage capacity due to many decades or centuries of logging and the removal of carbon.

    Ending fossil fuel consumption is about preventing things from getting worse.

    Increasing forest protection is about making things better.

    Keep it in the Forest, Keep it in the Ground (Pgs 211-12)

    Real climate solutions do not promote pulling carbon out of the ground or out of the forest.
    The timber and biomass industries and their political allies … are assiduously attempting to greenwash logging as a climate-friendly and “renewable” alternative to fossil fuels, as does a recent report from the biomass logging industry and the USFS [20].

    This is the new face of climate change denial: logging interests and the politicians they pay consistently deny the true impact of such policies. They deny the fact that incinerating trees for energy produces much more Co2 than burning coal does [21].

    And they deny the fact that most of the carbon in logged trees is emitted into the atmosphere almost immediately from the incineration of slash debris and mill residue (100 percent is emitted in the case of biomass logging)[21].

    They try to sidestep the reality that we must reduce atmospheric carbon levels NOW and that we cannot afford to INCREASE carbon emissions by treating trees as if they were giant sticks of coal.

    They traffic in the climate-change-denying myth that biomass logging is “carbon neutral,” ignoring the massive rise in atmospheric carbon emissions over the next several decades if biomass logging were increased [24].

    They claim that the logged forests may eventually grow back, but they fail to mention that this would happen long after the worst effects of climate change had already occurred. And they ignore and deny the substantial reduction in forest carbon sequestration and storage capacity that results from logging and adverse impacts associated with that [25].

    In essence, by promoting wood products, including mass timber (engineered wood beams), and biomass logging as green climate solutions, the timber and biomass industries want us to ignore the fact that most of the wood removed from the forests is used as dirty, climate-polluting fuel [26].

    They also want us to assume that logging has no consequences for forest regrowth.”

    [20] Farhad H. Masum, Kamakanta Sahoo, and Puneet Dwivedi, “Ascertaining the Trajectory of Wood-Based Bioenergy Development in the United States Based on Current Economic, Social, and Environmental Constructs,” Annual Review of Resource Economics 11 (2019): 169-93

    [21] John D. Sterman, Lori Siegel, and Juliet N. Rooney-Varga, “Does Replacing Coal with Wood Lower CO2 Emissions? Dynamic Lifecycle Analysis of Wood Bioenergy,” Environmental Research Letters 13 (2018): article 015007; Jamie Fanous and William Moomaw, “A Critical Look at Forest Bioenergy: Exposing a High Carbon ‘Climate Solution,’” Climate Policy Brief no. 8 (Global Development and Environmental Institute, Tufts University, 2018).

    [22] Hudiburg et al., “Meeting GHG reduction Targets Requires Accounting”: Ann Ingerson, U.S. Forest Carbon and Climate Change (Washington, DC: Wilderness Society, 2007).

    [24] Timothy D. Searchminger et al., “Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error,” Science 326 (2009): 527-28.

    The fact that we are exporting our precious resources to Europe and Asia is another issue altogether …

    • That’s relevant to the east, which is the target of the article. But it’s more complex than that- in the arid west the standing dead and overcrowded forests are due to burn; and thinning, transport, and use as biomass energy would actually reduce C emissions risk (from large catastrophic fires) dramatically. So its just not that simple. I think any intellectually honest critique of biomass has to take into account that there are sustainable use cases and scales where it can and should be a part of the energy mix. Perhaps never at utility scale, but most arid western communities would benefit from a power source that demanded several hundred tons of wood chips per year just to keep the WUI clear.

    • Michael, your quotes are full of straw personages.

      “In essence, by promoting wood products, including mass timber (engineered wood beams), and biomass logging as green climate solutions, the timber and biomass industries want us to ignore the fact that most of the wood removed from the forests is used as dirty, climate-polluting fuel [26].

      I don’t even know what this means. It seems to me that the timber and biomass industries would want to use “most” of the wood removed for the highest value products… which I think might be sawtimber, CLT and energy in that order. Oh where is a forest economist when you need one?

  3. Sharon,

    I missed the reference for [26] above … “See, for example, May 2020 letter to Congress.”

    Of course, the co-signers include our favorites,” Chad T. Hanson, Ph.D., Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., and George Wuerthner, M.S., as well as William L. Baker, Ph.D., and Paul R. Ehrlich, Ph.D., among others. 😉

    ” … over 200 top U.S. climate and forest scientists are now asking Congressional leaders to avoid using the pandemic emergency as a means for stripping away forest protections and promoting logging. In a historic and unprecedented letter sent to Congress today, the scientists conclude that, in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, moving beyond fossil fuel consumption is not enough, and we must also increase forest protections and shift away from energy-intensive and greenhouse-gas polluting wood consumption.”

    “The scientists note that annual carbon emissions from logging in U.S. forests are comparable to emissions from the residential and commercial sectors combined. They ask legislators to reject false climate solutions that promote forest biomass logging (removal and incineration of trees for energy production) under the guise of “climate-friendly” or “carbon neutral” energy or logging for cross-laminated timber (CLT) and other wood products under the guise of carbon storage. Most of the carbon in trees is removed from forests when they are logged and quickly ends up in the atmosphere or in landfills, they caution. The scientists also note that logging, including commercial “thinning,” can often increase fire intensity in forests, while damaging soils and removing vital nutrients, which undermines the carbon sequestration and storage capacity of forests.”

    “Forests are our only means for removing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing the carbon long term at the needed scale. Burning wood in place of coal is accelerating global warming and decreasing the capacity of forests to counter the buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide,” said Dr. William Moomaw of Tufts University. Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist with the John Muir Project, observed, “The dangerous excess CO2 that we’ve put into the atmosphere with fossil fuel consumption and logging will stay there for far too long if we don’t take serious steps to bring it down, and forest protection is our best and most effective way to do that.” Dr. Dominick DellaSala, Chief Scientist with the Geos Institute, added, “The vast majority of scientists warn that in order to avoid catastrophic climate impacts in the decades ahead, including new pandemics potentially linked to deforestation, we need to keep dinosaur carbon in the ground and store atmospheric carbon in forests.”

    • There are so many fault assumptions here. Comparing logging to fossil fuel consumption is a bit ridiculous. Ever seen photos of the Los Angeles freeways?
      But to me one of the greatest myths is that we can protect our forest by putting them off limits to management. We have been doing that with large portions of our public forests in the west and the results have been catastrophic fires burning up those “protected areas”. Those burned protected areas are now hot arid landscapes mostly devoid of trees. It doesn’t work. Just because you stop timber harvest don’t think you have saved the forest.


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