Since 2018, when I first began writing stories related to biomass, I’ve covered the issue and story from a variety of angles. Most have focused on efforts by forest advocates, ecologists and climate scientists to use a growing stack of peer-reviewed science to impress upon policymakers, especially in the European Union and United Kingdom, that replacing coal with wood — in the form of pellets, chips or other forms of biomass — is not a viable climate solution and is actually driving up carbon emissions — the very thing that needs to be reversed to slow the rate of global warming. Some stories have simply focused on the unparalleled success of the wood pellet industry, its accelerating growth and profits, and the fact that it makes up 60 percent of “renewable” energy in Europe, not zero-carbon wind, solar or nuclear.
The forest advocates are losing this battle — badly. It’s not even close. State subsidies to burn wood instead of coal reach into the billions. Profits are growing. New markets are ramping up in Asia. And intact forests — the first line of defense in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — are falling in greater acreage for wood pellets in the Southeastern United States, British Columbia, Eastern Europe and soon Vietnam.
This story, posted March 2022, follows up on a story I wrote from Glasgow in November 2021 at COP26: the new front in climate action is litigation. Forest advocates, with a lawsuit prepared, are now hoping for access to the European Court in Luxembourg as a way of altering EU policy toward biomass to reduce its usage and provide more protection for the world’s forests. My story is reported from a variety of angles which explain both the opportunities and obstacles to this approach, and a new study that breaks new ground on the long-term impact of the growing demand for wood pellets for energy and heat.
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 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.”
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:
This story linked here came about a bit on a lark. My new friends in the Italian press corps told me they were attending a late-afternoon press conference with leaders of the European Union and parliament. I decided to go, sat near the front, and tuned out the obligatory chatter about progress near the end of the summit (there was none). Instead, I had just one question and made sure the moderator called on me.
When he did, I mentioned that the top priority of the EU is about accuracy in carbon accounting, and yet it allows, as a matter of policy, for biomass (wood pellets) to be burned instead of called and being considered carbon neutral. As a result, biomass emissions, which studies have concluded pollute more than coal, are not counted by the nation burning them. So much for a commitment to accurate carbon accounting.
The two ministers paused before answering my question. More than 100 foreign journalists crowded the room. I thought they might ignore it. But they didn’t. And their answers surprised me enough, and the NGOs I ran it by, that I realized I had credible story to write on one of the high-profile issues I will continue to cover in this climate emergency saga.