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.
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.
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.”
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.