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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Logged trees for biomass in Bischofsheim, Germany. Image by 7C0 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Thisstory 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.
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 lastSubstack newsletterof 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.
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.
Forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala of Wild-Heritage in Oregon has been eager to produce high-quality, verifiable maps of remaining intact, mature and old-growth forests across the continental United States. He and I have been discussing the potential for such mapping to help create what he and colleague Bev Law of Oregon State call a Strategic Carbon Reserve, akin the the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that presidents call upon when gas prices spike or OPEC suppliers manipulate global oil supplies.
The carbon reserve would act as a protected carbon sink in the US that would remain intact, biodiverse and capable of continuing — and even expanding over time — its capacity to sequester greenhouse gases to help slow the rate of global warming. This story heredescribes the outcome of a new study (October 2022) in which DellaSala teamed with a group of forest ecologists to produce the first ever coast-to-coast mapping of such valuable, vulnerable forests.
President Biden in April 2022 requested similar mapping from his departments of Interior and Agriculture for the purpose to protecting more forests on federal land to help him meet his Paris Agreement GHG-reduction goals by 2030. DellaSala’s study will serve as a baseline comparison in April 2023 when the federal maps are due to make sure timber interests and forestry corporations don’t pressure the U.S. agencies to produce maps more favorable to logging than conservation.
An expanse of legally clearcut forest in northwest Washington state. While national park forests are fully protected, just 24% of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management forests are fully protected, with the rest at various levels of risk. I took this photo just outside fully protected Olympic National Park in July 2022.