I was in the air on a Delta flight to Bozeman, Montana, on November 9, 2023, when I received a text message from a source: Enviva‘s stock was collapsing and the company had warned in a financial disclosure what it “may not be able to continue as a going concern.” I didn’t exactly see this coming, but ultimately, having written in May about Enviva’s unexpected financial tanking in the first quarter, I wasn’t fully surprised.
As I read the breaking news coverage from the environmental and business press about the near fall of the world’s largest producer of wood pellets for industrial-scale burning for energy instead of coal, I saw an enormous gap — even in The Wall Street Journal. All the stories recited the staggering losses and the new, interim CEO’s positive spin on a desperate situation. But none of the stories could explain why a billion-dollar company with long-term contracts around the world, and where demand for pellets is at a record high, had lost more than $250 million this year and exhausted a $570 million line of credit.
That’s the only story I wanted to write, and it’s linked here. Enviva’s travails are acknowledged — in carefully shrouded accounting language — in its public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But I am fortunate to have as a source a former Enviva maintenance manager at two of its 10 Southeastern US mills. I interviewed him once I got settled in Montana and again when I returned to North Carolina. Based solely on his experience at Enviva over two years — 2020-20222 — he was able to explain the plausible whys and hows behind the staggering losses. This source, still unnamed for reasons of privacy and security, was my whistleblower in December 2022 in a story that reverberated globally.
This story quickly attracted international attention, too. It’s not clear yet what the ultimate ramifications of this downfall will be on the highly subsidized global market for forest biomass and the countries that have come to rely on this scientifically denounced form of energy in a climate crisis.
Radio journalist Rachel Lewis Hilburn, host of Coastline, a weekly program on WHQR public radio in Wilmington, North Carolina, had been following my coverage of the wood pellet industry over the past year. Of particular interest were the stories that focused on Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, which has four manufacturing plants in eastern North Carolina.
When we spoke by phone to discuss her program, she was not only interested in my coverage, but also my reporting process, my working with a key anonymous whistleblower who once worked for Enviva, the distinction between environmental journalism and environmental advocacy, and what lessons I share with my journalism students at Wake Forest University.
Here’s the result, a wide-ranging, live-to-tape 50-minute discussion in three segments in which Rachel’s innate curiosity and enthusiastic interviewing style directed me through all of those issues and a few more. I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with her and her listeners. Thanks also to producer George Newman at WFDD on the Wake Forest campus for preparing the studio in which I spoke remotely with Rachel.
This story here sprung directly from renewing my contact with a trusted source whom I met in December 2015 at the United Nations climate summit in Paris. That source: the Rev. Fletcher Harper, director of GreenFaith, an international faith-based NGO. I interviewed him in October for my recent story about Pope Francis’ latest papal letter in defense of the environment and whether it would reignite climate action by faith leaders around the world. A week after the story ran, Harper asked if I would be interested to covering an investigation GreenFaith was getting prepared to release about the impact on graves and burials sites along the 895-mile long route of the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).
My editor forwarded the pitch to Terna Gyuse, a Mongabay editor based in Ghana, who assigned me the story. Because of security concerns, I could not reach out to sources in Africa and Europe prior to GreenFaith’s release of “As If Nothing Is Sacred,” the nine-month investigation’s grim and detailed findings. I was able to pull together what I needed fairly quickly. Even TotalEnergies in France, which GreenFaith accuses of being heedless in disturbing more than 2,000 graves along the pipeline route, responded within hours to questions I had sent. Terna did an excellent job editing the story.