Author Archives: Justin Catanoso

About Justin Catanoso

Regular contributor to Mongabay since 2015. Professor of Journalism, Wake Forest University since 2011 MA in Liberal Studies, Wake Forest University, 1993 BA in Journalism, Penn State University, 1982

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.

Mongabay: Pope Francis condemns world leaders for deeply flawed UN climate process

Pope Francis, spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics around the world, has long been a defender of the environment and all its biodiversity, like his namesake, St. Francis. Photo by Visualhunt

I learned in early September from a close friend and good Catholic that Pope Francis would release an addendum to Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. That historic and landmark encyclical on the defense of the planet, excoriated the greed, consumption and bad policy decisions that were driving climate change and damaging “God’s creation.” I knew immediately that I would be returning to a favorite beat of mine, the intersection of faith and climate action. With Laudate Deum, just 13 pages (compared to 180 pages in Laudato Si), Francis emerges again as perhaps the strongest, most authoritative voice in the world for aggressive environmental protection while unsparingly identifying those who are standing in the way.

This story here reports the breaking news from the document, release October 4 by the Vatican on the Catholic feast day of St. Francis, the pope’s nature-loving namesake. I will follow soon with an in-depth global reaction to Laudate Deum and an analysis of how faith leaders are — and are not — meeting the pope’s challenge to protect natural places, reduce consumption and pushback against political leaders who seek to enrich themselves and their allies at the expense of their communities, the poor and the planet itself.

From Laudate Deum, the pope writes: “Eight years have passed since I published the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, when I wanted to share with all of you, my brothers and sisters of our suffering planet, my heartfelt concerns about the care of our common home. Yet, with the passage of time, I have realized that our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”

“We can do this, if we act now,” reads a slogan at COP26, the climate summit in Glasgow, UK in 2021. Year-after-year world leaders, their national representatives, cadres of fossil fuel industry lobbyists, and climate activists fly to remote urban locales to try and influence climate negotiations that since the 2015 Paris agreement have yielded little forward motion. Meanwhile, surges in carbon emissions, fossil fuel subsidies, and dangerous climate impacts continue apace. Image by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

Mongabay: ‘What we need to protect and why’: 20-year Amazon research hints at fate of tropics

I distinctly remember taking this photo from the lodge at San Pedro in the Kosnipata Valley of the southern Peruvian Amazon in July 2013. I had never photographed a more spectacular-looking bird. And it was on my first trip to Peru, a guest a Miles Silman, a professor of tropical ecology at Wake Forest and co-founder of the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group (ABERG).

This story about the 20th anniversary meeting of a pioneering tropical research coalition came about for two reasons: 1) my first grandchild, Simon Catanoso, made his entrance into the world more an a week before his due date, thus opening the way for me to head to Peru, and 2) the 10th anniversary of the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group (ABERG) was the start of a new journalistic career path for me — climate change and climate policy — that ultimately led me to Mongabay.

A Spanish language version of the story, published on Mongabay LATAM, is here.

Since my first trip to Peru in 2013 at the insistence of my Wake Forest University colleague and collaborator Miles Silman, a top tropical ecologist and co-founder of ABERG, I’ve returned nearly a dozen times. Once to cover COP20 in 2014, the UN climate summit that set the stage for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which I covered for Mongabay, with funding support from the The Andrew Sabin Family Center for Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest. Later, I returned multiple times as a communications consultant from Wake Forest for an influential NGO, CINCIA in Puerto Maldonado, founded in part by Miles with grants from USAID and World Wildlife Fund. In 2018, Miles and I developed a four-week summer program in tropical ecology and science writing and have brought four groups of Wake Forest students to the Amazon since then. Wake Forest featured our program online and in print.

Along the way, I’ve climbed a learning curve in climate science, forest and ecosystem mechanics, and biodiversity necessity that has enabled a late-career pivot to environmental journalism, mostly for Mongabay, that I simply could not have imagined when I left newspaper journalism in 2011. I am beyond grateful to Miles and host of environmental scientists, NGOs and forest campaigners over the past decade for assisting me in my immersion into covering parts of the most important story on earth, bar none — the existential threat to human life on earth wrought by human-induced climate change.

At ABERG10, held in the Andean village of Pisac, not from from Cuzco, I knew so little I was reluctant to interview the top tropical ecologists from around the world who gathered for that meeting, even though I was the only journalist there. Still, my coverage of ABERG10 was published in National Geograpic Online, as well as radio stories in WUNC and WFDD in North Carolina.

Ten years later, at ABERG20, many of those same scientists have become trusted sources, the issues they discussed and findings they presented are now familiar, and the context of complexity in their data gathering is something I’ve witnessed myself many times. The lead investigators and graduate students who make up ABERG are contributing to one of the most unique and vital longitudinal research projects in the global tropics across a range of topics.

My goal with the story here was to capture the essence of ABERG, its amazing transect, and its overlapping studies while highlighting a few of the scientists whose devotion to understanding the impact of warming temperatures on a warm and globally vital ecosystem remains strong and growing stronger.

ABERG’s study field for more than 20 years, off in the distance. My photo from 2013.

In my story, I describe the unique transect that Miles planned and oversaw the installation of starting in 2003 — more than 20 1-hectare plots on a single slope of the Andes stretching down from 12,000 feet to lowlands near sea level. This 2013 photo of mine accurately captures the ruggedness of each plot. What you can’t see is just how difficult these plots are to access, located as they are on a single, rough trail carved by Incans more than 500 years ago and used only by scientists and cocoa smugglers.

What the meticulous work of evaluating the impact of climate change on 1255 tree species along the transect looks like. My photo from 2013.

Miles Silman, ABERG co-founder and architect of the elevational gradient/transect, organized ABERG20 and opened the conference with a brief history of the group’s origins and aspirations. My photo from June 2023.

Mongabay: Timber harvests to meet global wood demand will bring soaring emissions: Study

Extensive logging of remote mountains on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, feeds the timber industry. Many of the trees taken here are old growth, more than 200 years in age. Timber companies typically replace the natural forest with monoculture tree farms that lack biodiversity and sequester far less carbon than the original natural forests. Image by Justin Catanoso.

ECOLOGISTS and climate activists spend a lot of time, justifiably, decrying the always-growing rate of international deforestation. What they rarely look at, evaluate or consider, is the impact of global logging for the timber and biofuel industries. This story describes a major study published in July 2023 in the prestigious journal Nature about the impact that logging has on contributing far more to global carbon emissions than ever imagined.

The study, by a several researchers backed by World Resources Institutes presents staggering figures involving current and future demand for wood products and the impact is/will have on global tree cover, and thus, carbon sequestration from intact forests. It is, like too many of my stories, startling and dispiriting, especially when you consider the many “treaties” nations have signed, as recently as COP26 in Glasgow, to halt deforestation. Of course, those treaties always involve loopholes the logging industry has demanded and received.

The summer of 2023 has brought every single day a reminder of the climate catastrophes people are the world are enduring — massive wildfires in Canada, record temperatures in Mexico and the US Southwest, vicious storms and flooding in the Northeast, deadly heatwaves across southern Europe and India. Every forest felled for short-term profit makes the earth less able to slow the rate of warming, and the rate of calamity. This study in Nature makes clear that policy changes in logging are a near-term requirement, and even points to solutions that are close to plausible while actually preserving most of the forests policymakers have pledged to protect.

Note: this is a major study by top scientists with a leading NGO published in the most prestigious scientific journal. The Times and Post and others have been busy reporting every day on the horrible weather events this summer. None bothered to cover a significant root cause and potential solutions. That’s not how we get out of this climate crisis.

This 52-acre native forest in Edenton, North Carolina, U.S., was clear cut in late 2022 for both timber and for whole trees chipped to make wood pellets for bioenergy. The site was cleared for industrial development. Only trees for landscaping were to be replanted. Clear cuts like this around the world diminish global carbon storage. Image by Justin Catanoso.

Mongabay: Financial downturn at Enviva could mean trouble for biomass energy

2023 is shaping up to be an all-time worst financially for the world’s largest maker of wood pellets for bioenergy, Enviva. In this photo, taken in December 2022 at Enviva’s smallest plant in Ahoskie, NC., trucks pull into the mill all day long, every day, to unload 40 tons of chipped wood from nearby forests to be pressed into wood pellets for export. Photo by Justin Catanoso

In this story, I write an unusual piece for Mongabay, but historically, a pretty common one for me — an analysis of a company in financial trouble. Mongabay doesn’t do many business stories. But when it is the business of the world’s largest maker of wood pellets for bioenergy serving the United Kingdom, European Union and Japan, this former business editor was eager to do the reporting.

Enviva is not only in financial trouble, with its once high-flying stock price in freefall, it is also facing legal jeopardy. In April, a class-action lawsuit was filed in the company’s home state of Maryland alleging Enviva has harmed its investors by mispresenting its sustainability credentials and long-term business viability. Reporting from my whistleblower story in December 2022 is cited in the lawsuit; the suit notes that Enviva’s stock dropped more than 9% after my Mongabay story posted.

Enviva has predicted that it intends to increase production from its 10+ pellet mills in the US Southeast from 6 million tons annually to 13 million tons by 2027. That growth — which will dramatically add to deforestation in a region prone to climate-related weather impacts where intact forests help cushion the blows — is now in question.