Mongabay: UK’s Drax targets California forests for two major wood pellet plants

These cut trees, viewed by California biologist and writer Maya Khosla, were harvested recently in Stanislaus National Forest, an area that falls within the potential harvest radius of a proposed wood pellet mill in Tuolumne County in central California. The mature trees were taken as part of a thinning strategy which often includes unburned forests for what is hoped to be wildfire prevention. Photo courtesy of Isis Howard.

I have been following the developments of the potential for wood pellet manufacturing in California for more than a year. The news hook that Drax, the United Kingdom based energy supplier and pellet maker, had recently entered into an agreement with a California governmental nonprofit that is promoting and planning for two new pellet mills, was what I needed to write this story.

It’s another forest biomass story steeped in controversy, as most of these stories are — whether they are centered in my home state of North Carolina, the US Southeast, or overseas in the European Union, United Kingdom, Japan or South Korea. The twist in California, a state ravaged by climate change-fueled wildfires since 2020, is that the “thinning” of the state’s vast woodlands and collection of burned trees and residues for wood pellet feedstock, will help reduce the risk of wildfires while boosting sagging economies in rural counties that cover parts of eight national forests.

More than 100 environmental groups, Indigenous tribes and community organizations have been pushing back against this growing industry in California and especially against the central argument for its existence — wildfire mitigation. My story explains both sides. There will very likely be more stories to come from California.

As part of its strategy to gather forest wood for wood pellet production, GSNR has said it will promote “salvage logging” in areas damaged or destroyed by wildfire. This June 2022 photo of an area burned in the Dixie Fire, one of the worst ever in California, illustrates what salvage logging looks like. “Ecologically there is nothing worse that can be done to a forest in California than to log after fire,” said Gary Hughes, a forest advocate with Biofuelwatch. “It is likened to beating a burn victim.” Image courtesy of Kimberly Baker/Klamath Forest Alliance.

Mongabay: Enviva bankruptcy fallout ripples through biomass industry, U.S. and EU

Tractor-trailers each loaded with 40 tons of wood chips waiting at Enviva’s pellet mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina, which opened in 2011. “There’s no way Enviva is coming out of Chapter 11, [bankruptcy]” a former Enviva employee and whistleblower told Mongabay. “Their manufacturing equipment is not fit for the service it’s required to deliver. Only two of its 10 plants (one in Florida, one in Georgia, neither built by Enviva) are hitting their maximum achievable targets for pellet production.” Image courtesy of Bobby Amoroso.

In this story, I continue my coverage of Enviva, the Maryland-based company that claims to be the world’s largest producer of wood pellets for industrial-scale energy. The pellet maker has been a dominant force in the industry in the Southeastern United States, especially my home state of North Carolina, since it opened its first pellet mill more than a decade ago. A couple of years ago, it topped $1 billion in annual revenue, its stock price rising above $87 a share. Enviva boldly planned major expansions in the Deep South and predicted pellet production to go from 6 million metric tons annually to 13 million metric tons by 2027.

That was then.

In the spring of 2024, Enviva found itself in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, having lost hundreds of millions of dollars in 2023 from a variety of circumstances — some beyond its control, many of its own making. It’s stock price is below 50 cents a share and Wall Street analysts, once bullish on forest biomass energy, are now warning investors away. This story continues my explanation of why Enviva is failing, with additional insight from an exclusive source who continues to provide an invaluable look beyond Enviva’s public statements and required disclosures as a public company.

A new angle to my coverage is how forest advocates have been shifting their attention to Washington, D.C., because of the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and the billions provided to incentivize renewable energy. Enviva, in desperation, is eager to convince the Environmental Protection Agency and other government offices, that is produces an legit renewable energy source and climate mitigation strategy amid the climate crisis. No rigorous, independent research supports that claim in the timeframes needed to slow the rate of global warming. But Enviva is angling for millions in US tax subsidies to help it pay for new plants in Alabama and Mississippi.

As my story explains, there is a lot at stake not only in Enviva’s future as a major supplier of wood pellets to the UK and EU, but also the future of forests desperately needed to remain standing as yet our best and most effective defense against erratic weather and accelerating global warming.

Mongabay: Amazon prosecutors get sharper impact tool to charge illegal gold dealers

Small-scale illegal gold mining is widespread throughout much of the Peruvian Amazon, but especially in Madre de Dios, causing enormous harm to the environment and human population in what’s recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. The Peruvian government has been sporadic in its attempts to curtail illegal mining over the years. In 2023, Peru adopted the Mining Impacts Calculator for use by law enforcement and prosecutors to better fight illegal gold mining. Image by Enrique Ortiz.

Enrique Ortiz, a good friend for many years, and a leading Peruvian environmental biologist with Andes Amazon Fund in the United States, sends out to a large email group new studies he thinks would be of interest on matters related to climate change, ecosystem services, biodiversity and environmental assaults. This story — my first focused on Brazil in a long time — came from an Enrique email.

Initially, I thought it was a straight-up, uncomplicated science story about how a Brazilian research team has put in dollar terms the amount of damage wrought in one enormous region of Brazil from the wide-scale destruction that illegal gold mining requires. One fact jumped out: through the team’s economic modeling, it concluded that the damage to nature, ecosystems and human health was twice as large as the value of the gold being mined — even as record prices for gold soar above $2,100 an ounce.

I pitched the story to my editor Glenn Scherer, who passed it to a Mongabay editor in Brazil, Alexandre de Santi. He gave the greenlight. Simple story? Not a chance. What I found from talking with the lead author, Pedro Gasparinetti, was that numbers from the study had a direct, practical use in what’s called a Mining Impact Calculator. This online tool is used by eco-investigators and prosecutors to bolster charges in court against not the small-scale mining operations, but rather the big corporate buyers of illegal gold. Gasparinetti connected me to an investigator and prosecutor for further insight into the value of the enhanced calculator. My own sources in Peru and the US — Enrique and Luis Fernandez — were essential in helping me understand the broader context of this important story.

This economic tool is no panacea. Illegal mining — responsible for widescale deforestation, biodiversity loss and human suffering across Amazonia — is not going away. But with Peru, Colombia, Ecuador as well as Brazil adopting the calculator in prosecutions of gold buyers, there is more than a glimmer of hope that uncorrupted courts will hold gold buyers accountable for billions in damages, thus choking off some the gold supply downstream. It’s starting to work. Let’s see how far it can spread and the impact it can have.

This is what illegal gold mining does to the Amazon in Brazil — once lush jungles filled with all manners of tropical life are reduced to a hellscape of desert, mercury-polluted ponds, poisoned species and dislocated people. I’ve seen this damage up close in Madre de Dios, Peru. It is heartbreaking — and unrelenting.
 Image by Fabio Nascimento

Mongabay: Forest and climate scientists fear Biden delay on mature forest protection

An old-growth Western cedar in Olympic National Park, summer 2022. Photo by Justin Catanoso

What follows below is a summary of this story of mine, which details a letter to President Biden from the top climate scientists in the country. They are calling for an immediate moratorium on logging in old-growth and mature forests in all national forests. The U.S. Forestry Service manages these lands, and more often than not, much of the 112 million acres is managed not for conservation but for harvesting forests — our surest font-line defense during this climate crisis — for lumber and wood products.

  • More than 200 forest ecologists and top climate scientists, including Jim Hansen and Michael Mann, have written the Biden administration urging it to quickly move forward on the president’s commitment to protect old-growth and mature forests on federal lands.
  • The scientists made an urgent plea for an immediate moratorium on logging federal forests with trees 100 years old or older, many of which remain vulnerable to logging and dozens of timber sales nationally. They also asked for the establishment of substantive federal management standards to protect those forests.
  • Federally owned old-growth and mature forests play an outsized role in storing carbon, offering a vital hedge against escalating climate change.
  • At stake are 112.8 million acres (45.6 million hectares) of old-growth and mature forest on federal lands, according to a 2023 U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management inventory — an area larger than California. Less than a quarter of those forests are currently protected against logging.

Mongabay: Study — Burning wood pellets for energy endangers local communities’ health

This wood pellet manufacturing plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina was Enviva’s first in the state, opening in 2011. Wood feedstock – pine and hardwood – arrives at the plant already chipped from native forests within a 50-mile radius of the plant. The chips are dried and then pressed into pellets. According to a new study in Renewable Energy, wood pellet production emits more than 55 hazardous air pollutants, along with tons of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter. Many of the pollutants can be harmful to human health. Image by Justin Catanoso.

The interesting thing about the facts that are the heart of this story of mine: it all sounds so familiar. Burning forest biomass causes enormous amount of emissions and hazardous pollutants from both the manufacturing process and the burning-for-energy process? Don’t we know this already?

Well, yes and no. Forest and public health advocates have been decrying for as long as I’ve been covering this issue the harmful impacts from every process that is the wood pellet industry — from clearcutting native forests that reduce carbon sinks and degrade biodiversity, to emissions from drying wood before its pressed into pellets, to pollution from the transportation sector to move pellets from one place to another, and finally, enormous emissions from burning these pellets instead of coal.

Because so much is assumed — and obvious (like the obvious health hazards of smoking cigarettes for years) — we assume, too, that there are rigorous scientific studies that prove what so many assume. This may be true in Europe, but it has not been true in the United States — until the 2023 publication of the study that is focus of my story.

This research is enormously important given the growth of the wood pellet industry and the growing interest across the United States to start burning wood for energy and claim — erroneously — that it’s a legitimate climate solution. There is no legitimate science that supports that industry claim. I am glad Mongabay continues to cover this issue closely. Sadly, this important study was not covered by any other news media.

Mongabay: COP28 ‘breakthrough’ elevates litigation as vital route to climate action

Montana is known for its “big sky” and wide-open spaces, but the state also supports an enormous oil, gas and coal industry. A group of young Montanans have successfully pressed forward on a lawsuit arguing that Montana is in violation of the environmental protections enshrined in the state’s constitution, because it is failing to consider climate change in approving fossil fuel projects. Image by Justin Catanoso.

While I didn’t travel to Dubai in 2023 to cover the 28th UN climate summit, my editor and I did plan a story to coincide with the come. Here it is. It’s a story I got turned on to at COP26 in Glasgow two years ago — the role climate litigation was playing around the world in an attempt to force climate action and emission reductions from countries, states, regions, and corporations. All summit agreements, including the historic Paris Agreement, are voluntary and carry no enforcement provisions when climate-related promises are invariably broken.

Thousands of lawsuits are in the pipeline globally, especially in the United States, and there have been dramatic wins in a variety of courtrooms from Montana to Amsterdam. But as my story explains, expecting lawsuits to quickly enforce necessary climate mitigation amidst a climate crisis is a longshot at best. As one of my legal sources told me, “There’s a lot of energy and activity going into these (legal) actions, but it’s too early to say whether it moves the needle.”

Thanks to my good friend John Knox — a Wake Forest law school professor, an expert on international environmental law, and a former UN special representative on human rights and climate change — for connecting me to several expert sources in New York and London for this story.

Dan Galpern, shown here at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already has the authority under existing federal law to force a national phaseout of fossil fuel burning. He is preparing a federal lawsuit to force the EPA to act. Photo by Justin Catanoso.

Mongabay: Enviva, the world’s largest biomass energy company, is near collapse. Here’s why.

Forest biomass protestors outside Enviva’s Raleigh, North Carolina, offices. Across the UK, EU and Japan, forest campaigners have consistently protested the local and global impact of the world’s largest producer of forest biomass — wood pellets — for industrial-scale burning in former coal-fired power plants. Ultimately, the company’s own grave operational problem at its plants appear to be behind its financial collapse. Image by Kimala Luna courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

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. In fact, it ranked as the No. 1 best-read story on the Mongabay website in November with more than 85,000 readers; that’s a lot. Better still, by year-end, my report made the list of 10 Most Read Stories of 2023, ranking sixth. As yet, though, 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.

Enviva’s stock collapse this year: The company’s stock was trading above $51 per share on January 13, 2023, and gradually slid to half that until the May 3 plunge. It dived again on November 9, bottoming out at 62 cents per share that day, and has not recovered much value since. It is now trading as a penny stock. Source: November 16 end of day trading screenshot from Google.com.

Coastline on WHQR: Justin Catanoso on the Enviva crisis, wood pellet industry, and why environmental reporting doesn’t always have two equal sides

In the spring of 2019, investigators tracked logging trucks coming from a mature hardwood forest and going to Enviva’s Northampton, NC, facility. The clear-cut, seen here, was located in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin, alongside Sandy Creek, feeding into the Pamlico Sound of North Carolina. Photo: the Dogwood Alliance

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.

Mongabay: Disturbing graves is latest violation attributed to East African oil pipeline

Robert Lule sits on a grave in Greater Massaka Area, Uganda. Local communities told GreenFaith that TotalEnergies has disturbed and disrespected the graves of their families and ancestors at numerous sites. Image for Mongabay by © Thomas Bart.

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.

EACOP acknowledges over 2,000 graves will be affected by construction of the pipeline. Locals say many more may not be counted. “Because these graves had lasted for over sixty years and the soil buried had disappeared, the only thing which could have helped was tracing using their machine which they did not do […]. It took us one week digging holes looking for the remains,” said a respondent in Uganda’s Buliisa District. Another person, in Tanzania’s Hanang District, where more than 200 graves are recorded, said, “I have lost hope now, I think the Project shall remove the graves and take them to unknown places.”

Mongabay: Ahead of COP28, pope spurs policymakers, faith leaders to push climate action

The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Reports from inside the Vatican say that Pope Francis is considering attending COP28. If he attends, Francis would be the first pope to do so since the COP climate summits were initiated in Berlin in 1995. Image courtesy of the Vatican.

This story is a follow up to my breaking news story in early October regarding Pope Francis‘ spirited addendum to his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si in defense of planet earth. In his concise, 13-page letter to “people of all faiths,” the pope makes clear his grave disappointment in leaders of the industrialized world to act with urgency to combat the accelerating climate crisis.

My goal with the follow up story, planned in consultation with my Mongabay editor Glenn Scherer, was to interview a range of sources in religious climate activism, theologians and climate policy makers. The timing of the new papal letter, called Laudate Deum, is clearly designed to challenge the national leaders who will meet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in early December for the 28th United Nations climate summit. My sources weighed in not only the Francis’ new criticisms and exhortations but also described a faith-based movement for climate action that emerged after the 2015 Paris Agreement in decline and disarray.

My first call was to the Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of New York City-based GreenFaith, whom I first met in Paris at the 21st climate summit, and who has been a good source ever since.

“Most religious organizations and leaders, with few exceptions, are not doing enough,” Harper told me. “Once-a-year sermons are not enough. Building gardens behind your church or temple or mosque are not enough. We need people willing to stand up to governments and major financial institutions and say: ‘You are destroying the planet. And you have to stop.’ ”

Other sources weighed in thoughtfully about the pope’s moral authority, the struggle for climate action in Latin America, and the need for a moral compass in the upcoming climate negotiations. It’s a lot. And this pope is once again doing what no other global leader is doing with such clarity. With time running out to slow the rate of global warming and thus head off even worse impacts from climate change, the question remains: are people listening?

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal pastor and executive director of New York City-based GreenFaith, a religious climate-action group with chapters worldwide. He plans to be at COP28. Image courtesy of GreenFaith.