Mongabay: The U.S. has cataloged its forests. Now comes the hard part: Protecting them

I took this photo in an old-growth forest in Olympic National Park, Washington State, in July 2021, while reporting for Mongabay. That’s forest ecologist and source Dominick DellaSala on the trail.

This Mongabay story of mine includes these details.

  • In April 2022, President Biden instructed the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to do a thorough inventory of forested public lands as a part of his climate mitigation strategies to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.
  • The new study, released April 20, identifies a total of 112 million acres of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands across all 50 states, an area larger than the state of California.
  • Forest advocates largely heralded the new inventory, so long as it serves as a road map for putting those millions of acres off-limits to logging so the forests and their biodiversity can remain intact to fight climate change.

A 60-day public comment period, starting late April 2023, will determine whether federal rules will actually help fulfill President Biden’s ambitious climate goals or continue to allow logging of irreplaceable ecosystems in forests lands that are already shrinking and critical to overall climate mitigation.

My colleague Jeremy Hance edited the story and agreed to include the 8-minute video from my 2021 story that features Oregon forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala.

An old-growth Western red cedar in Olympic National Park. Photo by Justin Catanoso

WFAE-Charlotte/Charlotte Talks: Inside North Carolina’s wood pellet industry

Enviva’s smallest wood-pellet mill of four in North Carolina, this one in Ahoskie near the coast. Photo courtesy the Dogwood Alliance.

David Boraks, a talented environmental reporter for WFAE-Charlotte, the second-largest public radio station in North Carolina (reaching lots of South Carolina), contacted me in December after my Mongabay story regarding the Enviva whistleblower. He, too, has covered Enviva and its impact on communities and the environment in the poor counties where it operates, four out of 10 of which are in North Carolina.

David invited me to join him in a detailed discussion on the popular noontime news program Charlotte Talks. We discussed the wood pellet industry, its impact on the Southeastern US and the policies overseas that enable this controversial energy source to keep proliferating.

As Derb Carter, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Boraks: “What’s happening in North Carolina is the forests are being cut and exported to Europe. None of that is used to produce anything benefiting North Carolina in any way. And you’re losing that carbon storage in the forest.”

Mongabay: EU woody biomass final policy continues threatening forests and climate: Critics

Logged trees for biomass in Bischofsheim, Germany. Image by 7C0 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This story describes the final revisions to a multi-year process in the European Union that led to a largely status quo rendering of the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive, especially as it applies to burning forest biomass for energy and heat as a means of reducing coal burning.

Before the debates in Brussels even got started in earnest in 2021, hoped was raised in Madrid, Spain, at the end of the United Nations climate summit, COP25, when Frans Timmermans, the Dutch politician who is the EU’s top environmental minister, answered a question of mine regarding biomass energy and whether not counting emissions at the smokestack was skewing emission-reduction accounting. Timmmermans’ response — that it was time to take a close look at regulations regarding biomass because new science had emerged — sent a wave of hope through European forest advocates.

If Timmermans was willing to follow the science, they reasoned, certainly changes were possible that would protect native forests, reduce or eliminate subsidies for purchasing wood pellets, and most importantly, reverse the science-challenged definition of woody biomass as a renewable energy source equal to zero-carbon wind and solar. Australia made this definition change policy in December 2022.

After two years of intense lobbying, special documentaries, investigative reporting, overwhelming public opposition, letters signed by hundreds of EU scientists and clear evidence that exchanging coal for wood is not only adding to deforestation globally but adding to emissions as well, the changes in the third iteration of RED are minimal — at best. My story explains the details. This quote captures the alarm and disappointment:

“The revised RED is not based on advancing scientific or even pragmatic insights as we fought and hoped for years,” Fenna Swart, a forest advocate with The Netherlands’ Clean Air Committee, told Mongabay. “It is only a political solution for key stakeholders… for an unsolved global problem.” Stakeholders who benefit, she said, include northern European member states with large harvestable forests such as Sweden and Finland, and the forestry and energy industries.

As I witnessed during a reporting trip to the North Carolina coast in November 2022, native forests are falling at a constant and growing rate to enable Marylond-based Enviva, the world’s largest maker of wood pellets, to meet accelerating demand for wood pellets in Europe, the United Kingdom and Asia — all because of deeply flawed national policies at the worst possible time in the climate crisis. Deforestation in harvest areas of North Carolina is estimated at 6 percent a year and will only increase an Enviva’s wood pellet production doubles by 2027. This photo of mine is of Enviva’s smallest plant in Ahoskie, NC.

Mongabay: France seeks EU okay to fund biomass plants, burn Amazon forest to power Spaceport

A colorful tropical tree frog in French Guiana. This French overseas department is known for its extraordinary Amazon biodiversity, with many species still not described by science. Image by Stephan Roletto via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

This story out of Europe had its genesis in a related story I did during the pandemic.

In late 2020, a source with the NGO Biofuelwatch, Almuth Ernsting, started sending me information about plans on the part of France to shift the primary energy source in French Guiana (FG) on the north coast of South America from oil to biofuels — primarily by growing soy. A lot of soy. I knew little about France’s territory in the Amazon, but learned quickly with the help of forest advocates Marine Calmet in Paris and Francois Kuseni in French Guiana.

Keep in mind, FG is the size of Indiana and is 98 percent forested. It has unparalled biodiversity — one of the largest intact rainforests in Amazonia. France’s plan? Deforest up to 890,000 square miles, three times the size of New York City, to grow the soy necessary to make liquid biofuels replace three creaky fossil-fuel plants on the north coast.

France? Home of the Paris Agreement? Proud to proclaim itself a climate champion to the world? Taking an enormous bite out of the always-under-assault Amazon — for bioenergy that actually produces more emissions than coal? It sounded preposterous. It wasn’t. This story from 2020 explains — and was cited in an FG court hearing where a judge stopped the project, at least for three years.

In early 2023, Ernsting sent more information my way with a France/FG/Amazon connection. French President Emmanuel Macron‘s political allies are seeking an exemption of EU law that protects native forests from being reduced to biomass for energy so it can, once again, develop bioenergy, this time to power the European Spaceport in FG. France is making this request at the same time it is co-leading a conference in Gabon, Africa, to develop strategies to protect tropical forests around the world.

Except, apparently, in French Guiana.

France won an appeal to pursue the massive deforestation needed to grow soy for liquid biofuels. Kuseni says forest advocates are appealing that ruling, which came in France, btw, not FG.

My story was translated into French; here’s the translation.

Kourou, French Guiana, where France is seeking an EU exemption to subsidize the building and operation of two biomass burning power plants that would provide energy to the European Space Agency and French Space Agency. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Mongabay: The EU banned Russian wood pellet imports; South Korea took them all

The Samcheonpo power plant in South Korea co-fires with coal and woody biomass, allowing it to claim it is reducing emissions under a carbon accounting loophole. Image courtesy of Solutions for Our Climate.

This story, my first of 2023, came from NGO sources I developed in Spring 2022 when writing about the explosive growth of woody biomass for energy in Japan and South Korea. At the time, Russia’s unprovoked and devastating war with Ukraine was just starting and Europe was still importing tons of wood pellets from Russia, providing billions of dollars to the Russian war effort.

NATO countries decided in July to ban Russian imports as part of escalating sanctions. Little known at the time, but revealed in late December by three different organizations, South Korea — ignoring its Western allies — took advantage of the Russian surplus and allegedly took all the pellets Russia would ship. NGOs is South Korea, Europe and the United States are livid, as my story explains. Moreover, it appears Russia has figured out how to get around the European ban by laundering its pellets through neighboring countries. All to help pay for the most egregious war crimes in Europe since World War II.

As my source in South Korea told me: “We are deeply ashamed that our government is allowing the purchase of products associated with both a humanitarian and climate crisis…” 

Sea Change Radio: Wood Pellets – The New Coal

Wood pellet production.

My December stories on the wood pellets industry, from the Enviva whistleblower to the policy changes in The Netherlands and Australia, have attracted attention from other journalists, including those working in Denmark, Germany, and the U.S. My colleague Erik Hoffner knows radio host Alex Wise, with Sea Change Radio in the Bay Area of California. Wise was eager to talk with me about my December coverage on his program, which focuses on issues related to climate change and sustainability.

Here’s our interview. Included midway is a fabulous Hank Williams song Settin’ the Woods on Fire, which adds a little levity to an otherwise serious set of issues. Sea Change Radio is carried weekly on more than 80 radio stations coast to coast in the U.S. and up into Alaska.

Mongabay: Australia rejects forest biomass in first blow to wood pellet industry

What Is The Role Of Koalas In The Ecosystem? - WorldAtlas
As 2022 came to a close, Australia did something no other major economy has done. It changed an environmental policy that essentially stops the wood pellet industry from starting up at any measurable scale. Forest advocates used the image of “dead koalas” in lobbying energy companies to not turn to biomass.

This story demonstrates the significance of a definition, in this case: what exactly is renewable energy? In September, the European Union punted on an opportunity to correct what forest advocates and climate scientists stress is an erroneous definition, that burning forest biomass is a renewable energy source, as this story explains. But as I report here, the liberal Australian government, persuaded by a relentless pro-forest campaign, reversed its existing policy to note that burning forest biomass is not a renewable energy source.

With that definition change, Australia virtually halted the ever-growing biomass industry — which is thriving in the United Kingdom , EU and Asia — from getting started Down Under. It represents a rare global win for environmentalists who have been battling the industry for years. And it raises a vexing question: how can major economies have polar opposite definitions of renewable energy during a climate crisis? And how can the United Nations’ governing body on climate change stay silent on this discrepancy?

This story posted on Wednesday, December 21, a time when people are distracted by the holidays and other grim world news. Yet this story drew more readers around the world than perhaps any I’ve written for Mongabay. Just one tweet by Mongabay drew more than 5000 likes, 1350+ retweets and 115+ comments — numbers I’ve never come close to with previous stories. Mongabay social media coordinator Erik Hoffner tells me the story ranked as the 6th best-read Mongabay story of 2022 and it posted just days before Christmas. It also got a big boost from tweets by noted environmentalist Bill McKibbon, which attracted even more global attention, as did tweets in Dutch posted by forest advocate Fenna Swart.

Mongabay: The Netherlands to stop paying subsidies to ‘untruthful’ biomass firms

A view of an Edenton North Carolina forest clear-cut photographed in November 2022. A logger on site told Mongabay that roughly half of the trees cut there and chipped were destined for a nearby Enviva wood pellet plant. Enviva exports large amounts of wood pellets to the UK, EU and elsewhere. The firm makes extensive green claims. Image courtesy of Bobby Amoroso.

Cause and effect. That’s something journalists covering controversial topics hope for — that our dogged reporting will come to more than praise or complaints from readers, that it might actually have a more tangible impact. About two weeks after my exclusive whistleblower story was published, this story illustrates a clear cause and effect, a tangible impact from my reporting.

On December 14, a liberal Dutch politician from Amsterdam cited specific details from the Enviva whistleblower story as the motivation behind a motion, approved 150-114, to compel the Dutch government to stop paying subsidies to wood-pellet manufacturers found to be untruthful in their wood-harvesting practices. Accountability journalism is a large part of what has motivated me throughout my career, and here at the end of 2022, it is bearing fruit in a way that happens all too rarely.

What this all means for wood pellet producers and energy companies that depend on wood pellets to generate energy as they phase out coal (not an environmentally or climate-friendly swap, scientists tell me) should become clearer in 2023. It is a story I will continue to cover.

Meanwhile, in what amounted to a fabulous gift on Christmas Eve, Bill McKibben, writer, author, educator and one of the leading and loudest US voices in global environmentalism, devoted his last Substack newsletter of the year to my reporting in December 2022. McKibben also promoted my stories out to his vast audience on Twitter, which resulted in an additional enormous response and engagement beyond what we were already seeing with Mongabay’s coordinated social media postings by colleague Erik Hoffner.

Illustration with Bill McKibben’s newsletter under the headline: A little Xmas cheer for trees/ Biomass burning has a bad week

Mongabay exclusive — Whistleblower: Enviva claim of ‘being good for the planet… all nonsense’

Two weeks before this photo was taken in Edenton, North Carolina, a small town in the state’s coastal plain, this 52-acre site was a densely wooded, biodiverse forest. It was clear cut in part to feed Enviva’s nonstop, bottomless demand for trees for wood pellets in the US Southeast. Enviva says this is a climate-friendly solution to energy production; the world’s top forest ecologists argue otherwise.

This story — the first of its kind ever written about the global biomass industry — started with an email in spring 2022 forwarded to me through the Mongabay web site. A well-placed source at Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets for industral-scale energy, wanted to talk. “I’m sick of the lies,” he wrote.

Over the course of the next several months, the source and I spoke many times at length. He shared with me his unique and powerful insider view of a company that claims one set of principles and priorities to the public, to regulators and to investors when it comes to wood harvests, and by all appearances, largely does the opposite.

To verify much of what this source was telling me over the summer and fall, I traveled to Edenton in eastern North Carolina in November 2022 with my friend and colleague Bobby Amoroso to observe a clear cut taking place on 52 acres of city-owned land. There I witnessed illustrations of Enviva’s apparent double talk about sustainable wood harvesting.

With the expert production work of Sandy Watt in London, we produced this YouTube video to summarize and complement my exclusive report for Mongabay.

The reporting for this story was extensive. It was also full, fair and thorough. I spent nearly 30 minutes on the phone with an Enviva communications staffer and explained to her, in detail, the story I was preparing and the reporting I had completed. Enviva chose to respond in writing. But I went further. I researched Enviva’s web site to show the message it puts out to the public. I interviewed an independent forester who believes, on balance, that Enviva is replacing demand for wood in eastern North Carolina, not increasing demand. I ignored allegations made against the company that I could not adequately verify to my own professionals standards. And I also made compelling use of a new study by the Southern Environmental Law Center that for the first time quantifies Enviva’s growing impact on forest cover within the wide harvest area of three wood-pellet mills in eastern NC and southern Virginia.

Why is this story important? Intact forests are the best and most effective planetary means we have of slowing the rate of global warming and mitigating the impact of climate change. The second-most important thing we can do is reduce carbon emissions from energy production. Science shows that the global biomass industry undermines both of these vital goals, and it will only get worse as pellet demand continues to grow in the UK, EU and Asia.

If you are new to the issue of biomass for energy and the controversy that has surrounded this growing industry for a decade, I encourage you to read this story and watch the video. A special thanks to Gizmodo for reporting on my story and Yahoo News for spreading it farther and wider. And thanks also to the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C., which has sponsored some previous wood pellet reporting of mine, for including this story and others in its December newsletter.

Mongabay also had my story translated into German. That link is here.

That’s me on site at the Edenton clear cut. The truck driver confirmed to me that he is carrying 40 tons of chipped trees to Enviva’s wood-pellet mill in Ahoskie, 37 miles away. He told me he makes three or four round trips a day. When I arrived in Ahoskie, trucks with 40 tons of wood chips arrived every five minutes — as many as 60 a day, every day, every week, every year. Enviva announced it will double its US pellet production from 6.2 million metric tons annually to 13 millions metric tons within five years. The $1 billion company has 10 plants in the Southeast.
Enviva’s pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina, on the day I visited. Each truck is carrying 40 tons of chipped wood that used to be trees from intact forests within 50 miles of the plant.

Mongabay: As EU finalizes renewable energy plan, forest advocates condemn biomass

Wood chips piled in mounds more than 6 meters (20 feet) high cover the lot of an Enviva wood pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Enviva claims it uses wood waste and doesn’t use large whole trees in the making of its wood pellets and that it only accepts wood from sites that will be replanted with trees — greenwashing that was discounted this week by a whistleblower who worked for Enviva and also confirmed by a Mongabay onsite investigation. Image by Justin Catanoso for Mongabay.

As I was preparing my exclusive whistleblower story, a commentary was released in the journal Nature that sought to weigh in on the late-stage negotiations in the European Union on its Renewable Energy Directive (RED) as it applied to biomass harvest and burning. The headline pretty much summed up the message: EU climate plan boosts bioenergy but sacrifices carbon storage storage and biodiversity.

I interviewed the lead author, Tim Searchinger of Princeton, sought comments from sources in The Netherlands and Germany regarding the state of the negotiations, got one German member of parliament to answer a few questions without attribution, and layered in context regarding European politics and bioenergy industry lobbying.

The result: this story that updates readers on the state of RED negotiations and the latest scientific arguments for limiting biomass harvest and burning, and eliminating billions in subsidies. A reference to my whistleblower story fit into the story as well.