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.
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.
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.
This story follows up on a one I wrote last spring (2022) regarding the negotiations around possible revisions to the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which is evaluated every three years. Of peak interest has been whether members of parliament would change their view toward the continent’s use of woody biomass for heat and energy and its impact on global forests.
Biomass accounts for more than 60 percent of the EU’s renewable energy portfolio — but legions of scientists continue to argue there is nothing renewable about burning biomass, at least at it compares to zero-carbon wind and solar.
While parliamentary committees for the first time recommended changes in subsidies for woody biomass and increased protections for Europe’s forests — which provide the bulk of the EU’s pellet production — the outcome appears far different. Yes, it calls for phasing down of subsidies, estimated at $13 billion annually. It also calls for protection of natural forests, saying only lumber residue and damaged trees can be used for pellets. But forests advocates explained to me that the amendments that were approved are vague enough to not change EU woody biomass consumption — or the emissions they produce — at least for the next three years.
This view was essentially supported by a statement by US-based Enviva, the world’s largest pellet maker, that hailed the RED amendments as a victory for the bioenergy industry.
Here’s the big thing: an amendment that would declassify woody biomass as a renewable energy source, on par with wind and solar (a well-reported error that began with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) was rejected. This, too, was cheered by the bioenergy industry.
This story linked here is one I originally imagined reporting from Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The Canadian province seems intent allowing the last of its majestic, irreplaceable old-growth forests be taken by the timber and pellet industries — aside from perhaps the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast. But Covid restrictions locked the border between the US and Canada in late July (2021), so I shifted my focus to Washington state and Olympic National Park for my first field reporting since summer 2019.
My idea was simple — tour a coastal, old-growth rainforest with a forest ecologist and discuss why such rare ecosystems are important to harboring vast biodiversity, cleansing air and watersheds, and storing more carbon per hectare than the rainforests of the tropics. A good source and expert, Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage: Earth Island Institute, agreed to fly up from Oregon to meet me on the Upper Peninsula of Washington state, just a few miles across the sound from British Columbia.
I also wanted a video, linked here, to complement my story. My my editor Glenn Scherer approved a budget for me to hire Seattle-based Ted Grudowski, a friend of my Greensboro neighbor and documentarian Michael Frierson (lucky connections all around). Ted is an award-winning environmental videographer and knows the Olympic National Park inside out. He was as much as a fixer in helping me map a plan for where to report from as he was an expert videographer in capturing my hike with DellaSala, and later, a key interview with John Talberth, an expert Pacific Northwest forest conversation. The multimedia package came together exactly as I hoped it would, with a special assist from Mongabay video producers Manon Verchot in India, Lucia Torres in Spain and Lisa Golden in Great Britain.
“What’s at stake in protecting much of what’s left? How can government policy on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border do more to preserve old-growth, perhaps the most effective means we have of slowing the alarming rate of global warming — letting tall, old trees grow taller and older in large, fully intact ecosystems?”
This story, linked here, is far and away the most important one I’ve reported and written in the five climate summits I’ve covered dating back to Lima, Peru, in 2014. It demonstrates politics triumphing over science, and it could not come at a worse time. In a conference dedicated to technical details, the unwillingness to accurately account for the escalating carbon emissions coming from burning wood for energy in the UK, throughout the EU and increasingly in Asia, amounts to a crime against nature — who is not fooled by what one source called “fraudulent accounting.”
An excerpt from my story:
“Let’s be clear about this: delegates from developed countries are well aware of this dangerous loophole as they draft the Paris Rulebook that could be designed to remedy the problem at the 24th U.N. climate summit, or COP24, here in Katowice, Poland. Yet they have ignored the pleas, the scientific data, the detailed charts identifying the danger, submitted by impassioned NGOs over the past week and a half.”