This story was months in the making. Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, and I had been discussing a story that took a step back from the breaking news around climate policy and rising biomass consumption to look at the science behind the issue. Since last spring, I researched and printed out peer-reviewed studies with diverging outcomes and read them closely. The biomass industry can point to scores of research that supports its claim that wood pellets are good for forests and a genuine climate solution, while forest advocates can pile up even more research that explains just how big a mistake the Kyoto Protocol made when it classified all bioenergy as renewable and carbon neutral.
Because there are so many points of difference, the biggest challenge in this story was narrowing the scope of issues to compare, knowing full well that in a 2,000-word story, important issues would not make it into this story. Still, I kept my focus on the issues industry officials tend to use the most in defending themselves against their growing chorus of critics.
This particular story is as balanced as fairness allows. By that I mean, it is fair in clearly explaining the industry arguments and citing the studies that back their claims, while making sure to be accurate in the overall thrust of the story in terms of the impact woody biomass is having on — to pick just one issue — the accuracy of carbon-emissions accounting.
This is among the more important stories I’ve done on this issue since I started covering it in 2018. Hopefully, it will serve as a trustworthy resource for new reporters coming to this story and heavily lobbied policymakers trying to figure out who and what to believe when it comes to energy generation and actual climate mitigation.
Having covered six United Nations climate summits, dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014, I am all too familiar with the ambitious promises of climate action and the unified chorus of environmental-protection support from world leaders (until Trump). And then, of course, as my previous story out of British Columbia illustrates, nothing — a near-total lack of political will to prioritize nature, forests and biodiversity over anything resembling sacrifice or pushback against polluting industries and forestry interests.
President Joe Biden appears to be trying to change that. He has sent constant signals that he and his entire government intend to act on climate change in a broad and coordinated way not only to reassert US leadership after the reckless and embarrassing Trump years, but because of the science: we have less than 10 years to dramatically decarbonize G-20 economies to stave off the climate crisis that worsens every day, according to multiple reports from the International Panel on Climate Change.
In my first breaking news story since COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, I cover Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate and address the gap between climate-action promises made by the US, China, the UK, EU and others, and what still stands in the way of desperately needed real action. The Eurasia Review republished my story.
As Dave McGlinchey of the Woodwell Climate Research Center told me: “This summit could be a critical turning point in our fight against climate change, but we have seen ambitious goals before and we have seen them fall flat. Today’s commitments must be followed with effective implementation, and with transparent reporting and accurate carbon accounting.”
In this story, I revisit a part of the world I wrote about last June — British Columbia, its rare and vanishing towering old-growth forests in coastal and interior rainforests, and a progressive government’s promises to protect and preserve much of what’s left. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
“I know what they say [in the National Democratic Party], but I don’t know what this government’s long-term vision is for forestry,” Sonia Furstenau, BC’s Green Party leader, told me in an hour-long interview. “They are adhering to the status quo that is giving us the same outcomes we’ve had for decades. I was on the finance committee a few years ago. I spent a lot of time in small planes flying over the province. When you fly over British Columbia, it is a landscape of devastation. It’s heart-wrenching to see it from the sky, just how little intact forest there is left.”
My in-depth story reveals the sentiments some the top players in this environmental saga of unfilled political promises — leading forestry experts, political insiders, even a statement to Mongabay from BC’s forestry minister. It all adds up to an inescapable conclusion: despite the NDP adopting paradigm-shifting recommendations it commissioned in 2020, the majority government is still prioritizing logging and a growing wood-pellet industry over some of the last great old-growth forests, rare ecosystems and endangered species in North America.
As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upped his nation’s carbon-reduction ambition under the Paris Agreement, he will find it increasingly difficult to meet those goals by 2030 as his country’s most powerful carbon sinks are felled for lumber and wood pellets to be burned overseas in power plants.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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: