Author Archives: Justin Catanoso

Environment  Mongabay: Dutch to limit forest biomass subsidies, possibly signaling EU sea change

he Netherlands is known for its photogenic windmills. But when it comes to renewable energy, wind accounts for only 23% of the country’s mix compared to 61% of renewable energy from burning biomass in coal-fired power plants.* The vast majority of Dutch energy still comes from burning oil, natural gas and coal. Photo credit: Ignacio Ferre on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND.

This story of mine from The Netherlands appears to illustrate a small crack in the near-universal political support for biomass usage in the European Union. Is it a harbinger of more change in biomass policy as the EU moves in June 2021 to consider revisions to its Renewable Energy Directive II?

For a small country, just 17.3 million people, The Netherlands holds an outsized influence in the EU, and the new make up of its parliament (national elections were held March 17, 2021) could determine the fate of biomass subsidies in a country that is one of the largest importers of wood pellets from the US Southeast.

Small victories like this are celebrated by environmentalists, but the biomass industry continues to grow rapidly in scale and revenue. For all the science that illustrates the importance of keeping forests intact, and how burning wood pellets is more polluting than burning coal, the industry presses a different point of view and interpretation of the science that continues to hold sway with policy makers. Consider this response in my story from the president of the World Bioenergy Association:

“My take on the Dutch decision is that it is as wrong and poorly informed as the Brexit decision in the U.K.,” said Christian Rakos, responding from Austria. “It is based on campaigns that have not told the truth. The fact is, the Netherlands is currently among the worst-performing countries in Europe when it comes to renewable energy use and this [biomass] decision will further deteriorate its performance in terms of climate protection.”

He added: “Our position is to do everything possible to ensure [forest] sustainability, but to keep in mind that climate change is the greatest threat to ecosystems at present, and that it will be impossible to mitigate it without extensive use of bioenergy.”

Rakos is correct about The Netherlands and renewable energy usage. It still gets as much as 90 percent of its energy from fossil fuels. But most of its “renewable” energy comes from burning wood. As leading biomass expert Mary Booth told me: “We’re not going to burn our way out of the climate crisis.”

Environment  Mongabay: 500+ experts call on world’s nations to not burn forests to make energy

A forest biomass plant in the U.S. Southeast. The industry insists it does not use healthy, whole trees for wood pellet production, using instead crooked, diseased trees or lumber waste, tree tops and woody residue. This photo tells a far different story. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

A new administration in the White House, one committed to climate mitigation policies across the federal bureaucracy in ways never seen before, has encouraged international environmentalists to press for changes to policies that they see as detrimental to nature, ecosystems and climate solutions in the midst of a worsening climate crisis.

In this story, I report on a letter sent directly to President Joe Biden as well as leaders of the EU and Japan to rethink policies that encourage deforestation in the US Southeast, western Canada and Eastern Europe in order to produce wood pellets to be burned for energy and heat instead of coal. These wood pellets are burned primarily in the European Union and United Kingdom. Japan and South Korea are also moving to this energy source.

As I’ve been reporting for years on this issue, biomass — including wood — is defined as a carbon neutral energy source on par with zero carbon wind and solar under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. This definition has been included in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. In both, the smokestack emissions from biomass are not reported in a country’s emissions accounting under the Paris Agreement.

In other words, these countries are still polluting, but on paper, it appears that their emissions are coming down, depending on how much biomass is part of the their overall energy mix. In the EU and UK, it’s around 10-15 percent. As the scientists who signed the February 11 letter stressed, and as my sources confirmed, these policies are not climate solutions. They are actually making the problem worse by both adding to deforestation and not reporting the actual pollution they are putting into the air.

Environment  Mongabay Newscast: Are biomass and hydropower ‘false’ climate solutions?

A handful of biomass, prior to being turned into wood pellets. Photo by Oregon Department of Forestry, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Mike Gaworecki has done a great job hosting the Mongabay Newscast for years. He’s invited me on the program several times, including on Feb. 10, 2021 with this episode. Here, he talks with me about the story and issue I’ve been covering since spring 2018 along with an eco-warrior from North Macedonia who is an expert is the hazards of hydropower. Mike described the episode like this:

On this episode of the Mongabay Newscast, we look at two energy-related technologies that are being promoted as climate solutions, biomass and hydropower, which might have unintended consequences that hamper their ability to supply clean energy and thus might not be sustainable solutions at all.

Our first guest is Justin Catanoso, a professor at Wake Forest University and long-time Mongabay correspondent. Catanoso tells us about the loopholes in renewable energy policies that have allowed the biomass industry to flourish under the guise of “carbon neutrality,” even though the burning of biomass for energy releases more carbon emissions than burning coal.

We also speak with Ana Colovic Lesoska, a biologist by training who founded the Eko-Svest Center For Environmental Research in North Macedonia. Colovic Lesoska was instrumental in shutting down two large hydropower projects in her country’s Mavrovo National Park, but there are still more than 3,000 new hydropower projects proposed in the Balkans. She tells us why hydropower is being adopted by Balkan countries and whether or not hydropower can be a climate solution at any scale.

A pair of Balkan lynxes. Ana Colovic Lesoska helped stop two large hydroelectric dams from being built in North Macedonia’s Mavrovo National Park, which provides important habitat for the Balkan lynx. Photo by Goldman Environmental Prize.

Environment  Mongabay: Will new US EPA head continue his opposition to burning forests for energy?

President Biden’s choice to head the US Environmental Protection Agency, Michael S. Regan. In the past, he has made strong statements criticizing the burning of wood pellets to make energy. Image courtesy of North Carolina Governor’s Office.

Here’s how this story came about. In November 2019, I interviewed Michael Regan, then secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, following his appearance on a panel at Wake Forest University, where I am on the faculty. My colleague Stan Meiburg, who heads our graduate program in sustainability and retired from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 as deputy administrator after 39 years at the agency, helped me secure 30 minutes with Regan.

At the time, I was part of a three-reporter team working on a series of stories for The News & Observer of Raleigh about the impact of the biomass industry on North Carolina’s forests and air quality. A generous grant from the Pulitzer Center underwrote the project. Anyway, Regan was surprising blunt in his criticism of woody biomass as an energy source and sided with the science that concluded that burning biomass was not carbon neutral. Those views had already been translated into North Carolina policy under the state’s Clean Energy Plan.

When President Biden nominated Regan as his new EPA administrator, I reviewed a transcript of my interview with him, understood from previous reporting that biomass was an unsettled issue at EPA, and thought Mongabay readers would be want to know where he unambiguously stands on this issue. My editor, Glenn Scherer, agreed. I added additional reporting and interviews, and we got the story posted.

Update: In a bipartisan vote and support from both Republican senators from North Carolina, Regan won easy Senate-approval to this cabinet position in early March 2021. He becomes the first Black male to head the EPA.

Environment  Mongabay: French Guiana soy biofuel power plants risk massive Amazon deforestation

Cutline: French Guiana, a department of France on the northeast coast of South America, is more than 98 percent forested in Amazonia. It’s one of the last remaining large tracts of largely undisturbed Amazon jungle, rich in biodiversity. Proposed policy and energy changes proposed in Paris could dramatically impact these important ecosystems.

This story here came to me in November as a tip from a source in Scotland who is familiar with my reporting on the growth of the biomass industry for energy production. This one has a new twist in that it doesn’t focus on wood pellets for energy, but rather soy for biofuels — in a part of the world rarely discussed but critical in size and scope for biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation — French Guiana.

With lots of research reports, government documents and exceptional sources in both Paris and Cayenne, French Guiana, the story started to take shape. With a population of just 300,000 almost entirely along it’s northern coast, French Guiana is in need of expanding and upgrading its energy system from diesel-powered plants to renewables. The problem, however, is the France wants the department to grow its own soy — the most common source for biofuel — to power five new energy stations. To grow enough soy would require a staggering amount of Amazon jungle to be clearcut — by one estimate, an area three times the square miles of New York City.

My story details what’s at stake with this unusual proposed policy change for a country and president, Emmanuel Macron, recognized for their sensitivity to climate action and ecosystem protections. Activists in French Guiana are mobilizing to stop the policy proposals, preserve their densely forested department (which is the size of Indiana) and promote true renewable energy sources like expanded wind and solar installations.

The heavily forested port of Larivot in Cayenne, French Guiana, where a 120-megawatt soy liquid biofuels energy station is planned. Image courtesy of Francois Kuseni.

Environment  Mongabay: Are forests the new coal? Global alarm sounds as biomass burning surges

In this stunning graphic created by the Southern Environmental Law Center is the size and scope of the massive wood pellet production industry in the US Southeast, one of the world’s largest producers of wood pellets for energy generation in the UK and EU. The biomass production is concentrated here because nearly all forested land is privately owned with cheap, easy access to forests for clear-cutting, destroying species habitats and weakening climate mitigation in a region beset by hurricanes and flooding.

This multimedia story — the most complex of any I’ve written for Mongabay — was months in the making. In late spring, my editor Glenn Scherer and I talked about a kind of global supply-and-demand story regarding the biomass industry. In early June, I created a Google alert for “biomass” and “wood pellets” and started gathering links to stories about the industry. It became obvious after a few weeks that despite this incessant lobbying of scientists and NGOs, despite mountains of science over a decade demonstrating that biomass is not carbon neutral like wind and solar and should not have the same legal designation, despite the loss of so many badly needed carbon-sequestering forests in the US, Canada, Russia, Eastern Europe and now Asia, the biomass industry is only growing — rapidly — in size, scale, profitability and as a natural offshoot, political influence. All this at a time when climate change is only accelerating.


A load logging truck pulls into the Enviva biomass wood pellet plant in Northampton, North Carolina. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance / NRDC.

To tell this story, Glenn and I recognized we needed more than a long, involved narrative — though I produced one. We needed visuals: interactive graphics, photographs, another video produced by the super-talented Manon Verchot. It’s all here. Including this YouTube video. It’s a compelling package and a rather grim reality. There is a potential bright spot in The Netherlands where public support against biomass for energy and heat is high, and the Dutch government — a major user of biomass instead of coal — has been urged by an independent advisory commission to phase out its use of biomass. Some advocates hope that if the Dutch government acts, other EU nations may just follow suit.

In the meantime, the biomass industry continues to pile up whole trees for pelletizing along with record profits.


In 2017 demand for industrial wood pellets exceeded 14 million tons. By 2027, demand is expected to more than double to over 36 million tons. The biggest increases in biomass burning by 2027 are expected in Europe, Japan and South Korea, with newly targeted source forests in Brazil, Mozambique and Australia. Image courtesy of Environmental Paper Network

Environment  Mongabay: British Columbia poised to lose ‘white rhino of old growth forests’


British Columbia’s remaining old growth forests aren’t only valuable for the carbon storage they provide; they should also be cherished for their uniqueness, the biodiversity they harbor, and the awe they inspire. Image by Jakob Dulisse.

This story of mine for Mongabay put me on a learning curve to understanding a new and important ecosystem: inland temperate rain forests of British Columbia, Canada, and how they are vanishing to over-timbering and now wood pellet production. The story turns on two spring 2020 reports that spell out clearly what’s at stake. Both reports were produced for a progressive government in Victoria that for the first time in memory is at least interested forest conservation — especially old-growth forests of the province’s tallest trees along its coast and inland in these unique rain forests.

The story also carries my first video for Mongabay, in which I worked closely with our India-based video producer Manon Verchot. Her skill at these 5-minute YouTube videos is readily apparent. Here’s the video link.

There is much at stake in this story: ancient, irreplaceable trees; wildlife on the brink of extinction; carbon storage of prodigious volume; climate mitigation that is critical both to Canada and the planet; government faced with critical decisions regarding the environment and the economy.


Clearcut logging in the Anzac Valley, part of the boreal rainforest near Prince George, British Columbia. Image by Taylor Roades courtesy of Stand.earth.

Environment  Mongabay: Scientists warn Congress against declaring biomass burning carbon neutral


In the early spring of 2019, investigators tracked logging trucks from a mature hardwood forest en-route to a North Carolina wood pellet manufacturing facility. The clear cut from which the trees were removed is located in the Tar-Pamlico River basin, alongside Sandy Creek, which feeds into North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound. Credit: Dogwood Alliance.

This story of mine posted during the same week that The New York Times reported that the Trump Administration had reversed or was in the process of reversing 99 environmental regulations designed to protect our air, water, wildlife, national parks and fragile ecosystems. Now, the EPA is set to issue a new ruling that very well could imperil the nation’s privately held woodlands from coast to coast. If the US defines the burning of wood pellets — a focus of my reporting for more than two years now — as carbon neutral, we are likely to see utilities shift in parts of the country to burning wood for energy. Some of the wood will come tree farms grown for wood products. But too much will come from established forests and thriving ecosystems.

My story focuses on a letter to Congressional leaders on House and Senate environmental committees from 200 scientists in 35 states urging them to look closing at the peer-reviewed science and protect the nations woodlands from the carbon-neutral designation.

The science could not be more clear. Burning wood for energy is not carbon neutral in any acceptable timeframe given the accelerating pace of global warming. Trees, whether in the tropics, temperate zones or boreal forests, remain the most reliable way of pulling greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and storing it in their leaves, limbs, trunks and soil as long as those trees are standing. In no sane world would we be clear-cutting forests for the wood to be pelletized and burned for energy. Yet this form of energy, with the carbon neutrality loophole (see story for details) is increasing across Europe, the United Kingdom and now Asia.

“The only option we have right now to avoid climate disaster is [to conserve] the natural world,” Bill Moomaw, co-author of the letter to Congress and a leading forest ecologist from Tufts University, told me in an interview for this story. “Forests are the one thing we have the greatest potential to protect. If we let them grow, they will store more and more carbon.”


Pine forests cut to provide wood pellets for power plants are replanted, according to the forestry industry, so woody biomass as an energy resource could technically be called carbon neutral, but only over the long term. It takes many decades for new trees to mature and for the carbon equation to balance out. Photo credit: ChattOconeeNF on Visualhunt.com / CC BY.

Environment  Mongabay: Healing the world through ‘radical listening’: Q&A with Dr. Kinari Webb

Out on a limb: Unlikely collaboration boosts orangutans in Borneo
Kinari Webb was drawn to Borneo initially to study and help protect orangutans. In listening to how best to accomplish that goal, she decided that health care was the key. She entered Yale Medical School, became a physician and returned to Borneo to found Health in Harmony.

For this story, I received this pitch from a PR representative about a month into the Covid-19 pandemic. I was eager for a story that connected the essence of my reporting for Mongabay — climate change and environmental protection — with this global public health crisis. This seemed a viable idea:

“As society examines how to respond to the fallout from coronavirus, we invite you to interview Dr. Kinari Webb, founder of the international nonprofit Health In Harmony, which takes an integrated approach to human and environmental health and is one of the most effective organizations at halting deforestation in Indonesian Borneo. Dr. Webb knows that it is possible to completely rethink approaches to both health, livelihood and conservation – understanding that they are intimately intertwined.”

So I spent some time researching Kinari Webb and her NGO. I read previous stories on Mongabay about her work. I listened to her interviewed a year ago on the Mongabay podcast. Then I pitched the idea of a Q&A with this remarkable environmentalist and medical doctor to my editor, Morgan Erickson-Davis. She said yes. The PR person arranged the interview. And a few days later, I enjoyed a wide-ranging, free-flowing discussion with Webb from her home in Los Angeles. The result, during these often-depressing times of social distancing and personal isolation, is invigorating, provocative and by turns hopeful.


Dr. Kinari Webb. Image by Robert Lisak.

Environment  Mongabay: As investment giant BlackRock pulls back from coal, NGOs urge the same for biomass energy

Drax coal-fired power station

The four eastern cooling towers at the Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Image: Jono Brennan, CC BY-SA 2.0

This story came to me directly as a result of my coverage of the biomass-for-energy story over the past two years. Biofuelwatch, an environmental group, had organized a global group of NGOs to appeal to the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, to pull its 5 percent stake in the world’s largest energy-generating plant using wood pellets. Millions of tons of pellets are produced annually largely Southeastern US forests.

The underlying goal? If the world is going to dramatically reduce its use of fossil fuels, large investment companies like BlackRock need to divest hundreds of billions of dollars in oil, gas, coal and biomass, and ramp up investment in genuine zero-carbon wind and solar energy.

The company in question is one of I’ve about often; Drax, the United Kingdom’s largest energy provider. I interviewed its CEO at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in mid-December in a fairly contentious encounter following a presentation in which no questions from the audience were allowed.

Thanks to Mongabay editor Morgan Erikson-Davis for her careful attention to detail. And thanks to my Mongabay colleague Erik Hoffner for arranging for the story to be republished here with the environmental news site Eco-Business.

Those stacks and stacks of tree trunks collected from eastern North Carolina private land and tree farms before being turned into wood pellets bound for the UK? Most were once part of thriving forests and intact, biodiverse ecosystem.