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.
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.
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.
This story of minefor 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.
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.”
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.
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.
On February 12, 2020, with a letter to “all persons of good will,” Pope Francis sought to reclaim the mantle of global environmental leadership he established in mid-2015. That’s when he the released of the first-ever papal encyclical (Catholic teaching document of the highest order) on environmental protection and climate change — Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home.
My story for Mongay here picks up that thread with Dear Amazon, a papal letter in response to the first-ever Vatican meeting in October 2019 to focus on a specific region of the planet — Amazonia. While topics at the so-called synod focused largely on environmental protection and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in those jungles, the mainstream coverage of Francis’ letter focused almost solely on his decision to not allow priests to marry who agree to serve in the dramatically underserved Amazon regions spread across eight countries.
This left an opening for me to write a kind of exclusive about the pope’s environmental and social justice message, which makes up the vast majority of Dear Amazon. The story idea was pitched to me by my inimitable editor Glenn Scherer. I was glad for the opportunity.
Here’s my storybehind a Silicon Valley startup up with enormous ambitions when it comes to climate mitigation with a global client to match its lofty goals.
In mid-January, Microsoft made an astonishing pledge: a company that now emits 16 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually would become carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050, zero out all of the emissions it ever put up into the atmosphere since the company was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975.
Much of this effort would require “negative emissions,” or pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, not merely reducing its emissions from energy, transportation and infrastructure over its 12-country footprint. To do that, Microsoft will have to be heavily involved in protecting forests from deforestation to continue to act as a carbon sink, and contribute significantly to the reforestation of vast tracts of degraded land in order to pull more pollution from the sky.
My story focuses on the company, Pachama (Andean for Earth mother) that will do the high-tech aerial monitoring to verify that Microsoft’s carbon offset investments are intact and growing. It’s a critically important job if we are to get an accurate read on whether Microsoft, and others, are truly reducing their carbon footprint. I rarely get to write optimistic stories on climate mitigation, but this one certainly qualifies. It was a pleasure to interview the company’s smart and idealistic founder, Diego Saez-Gil.
The producers of The State of Things, the hour-long radio program of WUNC, invited me on the program on Jan. 14, 2020, to discuss the wood pellet series I co-authored with Saul Elbein and Richard Stradling for the News & Observer of Raleigh. Here is the link to my 10-minute discussion with host Frank Stasio. The program was broadcast from Triad Stage in Greensboro before an audience of about 50 people.
The series has drawn a lot of attention — positive and critical. Saul and I have also come under what appears to be a coordinated attack on our reporting and professional integrity by the pellet industry, including the CEO of Enviva in a commentary he wrote for the N&O. It is all validation of the accuracy and importance of our reporting on an issue central to climate change and climate mitigation. We are both proud of how the N&O editors and Pulitzer Center have stood behind us, our reporting and the fairness and accuracy of the wood pellets project. Funding from the Pulitzer Center made our reporting possible.
In April, Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center, called me to offer an opportunity: the center had received a substantial grant to support local newspaper journalism. He wanted to know if I had a story or project in mind that would be valuable to a publication in North Carolina.
I briefly told Jon about the stories I had been writing for Mongabay for well over a year regarding the growing use of wood pellets in coal-fired energy plants in the United Kingdom and the European Union, the loophole in carbon accounting policy that allowed these enormous emissions to go uncounted (thus threatening to undermine the goal of the Paris Agreement), and to his interest, that the majority of these wood pellets were coming from North Carolina forests — millions of tons per year. Morever, the vast majority of North Carolinians, including legislators and policymakers, know nothing about the industry or its impact. Jon was interested and connected me with a Pulitzer grantee, Saul Elbein, who had published a deeply reported story for Vox.com on this issue of wood pellets.
Saul and I talked, agreed to team up, and developed a Pulitzer proposal that was readily approved; Pulitzer’s support was invaluable. I then reached out to John Dresher, the former News & Observer of Raleigh editor and acquaintance now at The Washington Post. He generously connected me to N&O managing editor Jane Elizabeth, who also, after careful consideration and plenty of questions, gave Saul and me the green light to get started.
It’s important to note that Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest maker of wood pellets with four of its eight plants in North Carolina, was not happy when it learned that Saul and I were working on this project. The multi-billion-dollar public company hired a crisis PR manager in Seattle who tried to talk Jane Elizabeth out of working with Saul and me; he tried to undermine our professional credibility based on our previous reporting on the issue, and he vowed that no one at Enviva would cooperate with us (none did). Since publication, Saul and I have been attacked by name on an industry-sponsored web site, and in an op-ed by Enviva’s CEO.
Not surprisingly, the N&O, still one of the Southeast’s most prestigious and influential news organizations, stood by Saul and me and the story we proposed. It assigned an experienced staff writer, Richard Stradling, to work with us, as well as an exceptional editor, Dave Hendrickson, to shepherd the ambitious and exhaustive six-month, multi-part, multimedia project to publication in print and online in early January 2020. Since the personal attacks online and in print, the N&O and Pulitzer Center have stood squarely behind my and Saul’s integrity and professionalism in fairly and accurately reporting on a highly controversial story.
Below are the links to the first-ever, indepth series by an independent news organization about an industry and international carbon-accounting policy that a broad consensus of international scientists, environmentalists and public health advocates has serious concerns about in regards to aiding and abetting the accelerating global calamities of climate change: