The Other Side of the Story: CNN Story on Enviva and “Helicopter Journalism”

Franklin Williams, Northampton County’s Economic Development Director

Matthew posted this CNN piece, and my original thoughts were “I bet there are Black people who work at Enviva and who supply wood to them.. I wonder why their perspectives are not in the story?” The headline was “marginalized communities are paying the price for green energy in Europe”, but it could also have been “marginalized communities benefit from green energy exports to Europe.” If we go to the reporter’s Twitter,  she says “how Europe’s green energy hurts Black Americans.” It almost seems as though evidence was selected that supported this (predetermined?) claim, and other evidence not examined. Is this a case of helicopter journalism, similar to “helicopter research?”

“Journalists don’t have the time to get closer and understand the communities they are reporting on. They just land somewhere, cover the big story from a distance and dash off,” he said. “They inevitably miss the details.”

The topic is not as far afield from the western US as you might think, as landowners and Enviva are making money from residuals from forest management, which is something many westerners would like to do (and is arguably better for the climate than burning wood in piles).  Enviva developed its own proprietary tracking program to make sure that the material is responsibly sourced, allowing it to trace every ton of wood back to its origin in the forest or sawmill.  And they post their sources and the site information to the public via this cool map.. Imagine if we could use a similar system for western forest residuals…

Here’s an answer to the CNN article from Enviva on forest management.  It’s not hard to understand,  but perhaps I have a leg up, as I did my post-doc at NC State. They’re private forests, and landowners do what they want to do within regulations. They have a variety of objectives, including producing timber and other forest products. According to Enviva,

It is very important to understand that Enviva’s pellets are made from low-value wood that is a byproduct of a traditional timber harvest. Enviva creates an additional market for private forest landowners to sell their low-value wood, such as “thinnings,” limbs, tops, or low-grade trees (deceased, crooked) that would otherwise go unused, and an incentive to keep their land as forests. We’re talking about material that is a relatively small source of revenue for a landowner, so it’s not driving their decision to harvest in the first place.

Good biomass, like the one we source at Enviva, does not drive harvests. It is crucial to understand that forests are not being harvested for biomass. The value is too low. Harvest decisions are driven by how trees are sorted, purchased, and used according to their quality and value. A forest owner can obtain as much as 8 or 9 times the price for high-value wood versus the wood Enviva uses for wood pellets. It doesn’t make economic or business sense to use a high-quality tree for wood pellets or any other low-value product. As long as we source fiber from the bottom of that value scale, regardless if it’s a whole tree or parts of a tree, then we know we’re operating sustainably and delivering tangible benefits for the climate.
Enviva consults with independent academic and environmental organizations, who assist in identifying environmentally sensitive forest ecosystems that have high conservation value (HCV). We do not accept wood from sensitive forest ecosystems and we do not harvest, nor accept wood, from old growth forests or independently designated high conservation value sites.

We would like to reinforce that at Enviva, we only source from land that will be returned to forest. We require replanting of tracts with forests under the purchase contracts and per our Responsible Sourcing Policy.

On the human side, here’s a July 2021 Op-Ed “Elevating Equity and Inclusion in North Carolina” that describes some of the work Enviva does in communities, including:

“For years, we have assisted truckers in paying for their rigs as well as helping loggers finance chippers and skidders. We are looking to partner with more small businesses to create real opportunity and wealth for our neighbors.

Finally, North Carolina’s Black families have been mistreated and their wealth devalued by outmoded heirs property laws. Enviva has long assisted Black families who seek to create forest management plans that will secure their property, obtain the applicable tax benefits, and begin to restore the land’s value. We want to do more to support heirs’ property and Black land retention, and we want to hear from neighbors who need help with this.

Not helicoptering in, a local reporter (Holly Taylor of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald) wrote two stories to get “the other side of the story.” In the first, she quoted a letter from the Chair of Northampton Economic Development (photo above), Franklin Williams.

“As a leader in Northampton County, North Carolina, I am extremely disappointed to read a recent CNN article entitled ‘How marginalized communities in the South are paying the price for “green energy” in Europe.’ The article portrays our county, and one of the industries operating in it, in an incredibly negative light – contrary to the truth on the ground.

“Yes, our county has challenges – all communities do – but the article neglects to mention the great work that has been happening locally and depicts one of our proud local businesses – Enviva – as reckless and inconsiderate of its neighbors.

“Northampton County has made great strides in recent years – we have a long way to go to get where we want to but each day, each week, the lives of county residents are getting incrementally better. Attracting businesses is vitally important to our work and growth.

“Your recent article portrayed Enviva as a negative part of our community and one intent on doing harm. First, Enviva is well respected in Northampton County. They work with all segments of the community to support the needs of their neighbors. Second, the forest products industry is a vibrant part of our economy – your article failed to recognize this and the very important role Enviva plays by purchasing excess or low-grade wood fiber. Third, the State of North Carolina has installed air monitors in the vicinity of Enviva and those monitors demonstrate that contrary to your story the air in Northampton County is healthy. Publishing a story leading your readers to believe our air is unhealthy could be detrimental to our long-term growth and efforts to improve our county.

“Your recent story left out many of the facts and replaced them with opinions from just a few individuals. Northampton County has a great story to tell – it’s unfortunate that you decided not to tell it.

In the second, Taylor reached out to Enviva and printed their response to the claims in the CNN article.

2 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Story: CNN Story on Enviva and “Helicopter Journalism””

  1. FYI, Here’s a report on biomass fuel sources of a large Florida-based biomass-fueled power plant, as provided by the management.
    Current consumption is about 800,000 tons per year. The plant runs year round (except for scheduled outages), at about 80MW output average. Here is the approximate mix of supply:

    Mill residues-(sawdust and bark) is about 5%. This stuff generally has higher value uses.
    Logging residues is another story.

    We lump most post-harvest chips as logging residues; it consists of material left behind; low-grade or cull trees, unmerchantable species (mostly hardwoods), tops, branches, but no stumps. It also includes site preparation debris prior to planting. This is the majority of our supply, perhaps 75-80%.

    urban wood waste – currently about 15-20%. Quality control has been an issue here. Some wood yards can’t distinguish between woody biomass fuel and trash. Pallets and truss waste wood are good sources, but there’s not a lot of this

    We have taken some urban storm debris in the past- about 25,000 tons from the hurricane in 2017. This latest hurricane Elsa, appeared to have generated little extra wood. We are set up to receive and process the vegetative debris, but not the demolition debris.


Leave a Comment