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.
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.”
Here’s how this story came about. In November 2019, I interviewed Michael Regan, then secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, following his appearance on a panel at Wake Forest University, where I am on the faculty. My colleague Stan Meiburg, who heads our graduate program in sustainability and retired from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 as deputy administrator after 39 years at the agency, helped me secure 30 minutes with Regan.
At the time, I was part of a three-reporter team working on a series of stories for The News & Observer of Raleighabout the impact of the biomass industry on North Carolina’s forests and air quality. A generous grant from the Pulitzer Center underwrote the project. Anyway, Regan was surprising blunt in his criticism of woody biomass as an energy source and sided with the science that concluded that burning biomass was not carbon neutral. Those views had already been translated into North Carolina policy under the state’s Clean Energy Plan.
When President Biden nominated Regan as his new EPA administrator, I reviewed a transcript of my interview with him, understood from previous reporting that biomass was an unsettled issue at EPA, and thought Mongabay readers would be want to know where he unambiguously stands on this issue. My editor, Glenn Scherer, agreed. I added additional reporting and interviews, and we got the story posted.
Update: In a bipartisan vote and support from both Republican senators from North Carolina, Regan won easy Senate-approval to this cabinet position in early March 2021. He becomes the first Black male to head the EPA.
One of the most disturbing stories I’ve covered in recent years now moves from the forests and sidelines to — possibly — an international court in Brussels, as this story illustrates.
Here’s the gist of the story, as summarized by my editor Glenn Scherer:
Plaintiffs in five European nations and the U.S. filed suit Monday, 4 March, in the European General Court in Luxembourg against the European Union. At issue is the EU’s rapid conversion of coal-burning powerplants to burn wood pellets and chips, a process known as bioenergy. Activists see the EUs bioenergy policies as reckless and endangering the climate.
Bioenergy was classified as carbon neutral under the Kyoto Protocol, meaning that nations don’t need to count wood burning for energy among their Paris Agreement carbon emissions. However, studies over the last 20 years have found that bioenergy, while technically carbon neutral, is not neutral within the urgent timeframe in which the world must cut emissions.
Outside the entrance of the UN Climate Summit talks in Paris. Photo by Eric J. Lyman
Intro as read by State of Things host Frank Stasio: “”Ice caps are melting, ocean levels are rising and coral reefs are dying. The way things are going, some scientists say the world could be unfit for human habitation by the end of century. All eyes are on Paris right now as world leaders are negotiating an agreement to slow the effects of climate change. A deal is expected by tomorrow, but there are still big issues to resolve between the industrialized and developing nations.
I posted this story to the National Geographic NewsWatch site in March 2014, just a month after the Duke Energy coal-ash spill in Eden, N.C., It made clear early on that coal ash stored in retaining ponds across the state was already threatening ground water in those places. The story caught on through social media and found thousands of readers.
Excerpt: “These coal ash ponds are unlined, and people don’t realize that,” said Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin Riverkeeper who has been monitoring the Dan River spill. “They are continuously leaching arsenic, chromium, cadmium, mercury, all kinds of toxic heavy metals, into the ground and eventually into groundwater. Duke Energy has 32 of these ponds on 14 sites around the state, and every one of them is unlined. Every one of them is a threat to groundwater.”