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.”
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…”
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.
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.
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.
The last time I got to question Frans Timmermans, the executive vice president of the European Commission and easily the most influential politician in the EU, was at COP25 in Madrid, Spain, in December 2019, just weeks before the pandemic took hold. It was the last day of a dismal summit. I asked him about the future of biomass in the EU, and his answer was so surprising that it led to a story that quite literally stunned anti-biomass activists around from the US to Belgium to Australia.
In this story, my third from Glasgow, I got to question Timmermans again. This time, his answer was far more predictable, and to those same anti-biomass advocates, an enormous disappointment. I did get more than one question, though, as I asked Mr. Timmermans if he could talk further after the 30-minute EU press conference, which took place at exactly the same time former US President Barack Obama was addressing a packed plenary hall a few hundred yards away.
Aside from a range of reactions from forest defenders around the globe, I also received a detailed and thoughtful response from Christian Rakos of Vienna, Austria, president of the World Bioenergy Association. Rakos surprised me by offering an open dialogue with those who oppose everything about the industry he represents. I included it in my story and he reiterated his interest during a 90-minute meeting I had with him over Italian beer at the summit venue. Later, post-COP26, at dinner in Amsterdam with the EU’s leading biomass opponent, Fenna Swart, I mentioned to her Rakos’ interest in talking with her — even volunteering to travel to Holland to meet in person.
Swart and Rakos exchanged emails and a meeting between them is planned in Amsterdam.
This story was months in the making. Glenn Scherer, my editor at Mongabay, and I had been discussing a story that took a step back from the breaking news around climate policy and rising biomass consumption to look at the science behind the issue. Since last spring, I researched and printed out peer-reviewed studies with diverging outcomes and read them closely. The biomass industry can point to scores of research that supports its claim that wood pellets are good for forests and a genuine climate solution, while forest advocates can pile up even more research that explains just how big a mistake the Kyoto Protocol made when it classified all bioenergy as renewable and carbon neutral.
Because there are so many points of difference, the biggest challenge in this story was narrowing the scope of issues to compare, knowing full well that in a 2,000-word story, important issues would not make it into this story. Still, I kept my focus on the issues industry officials tend to use the most in defending themselves against their growing chorus of critics.
This particular story is as balanced as fairness allows. By that I mean, it is fair in clearly explaining the industry arguments and citing the studies that back their claims, while making sure to be accurate in the overall thrust of the story in terms of the impact woody biomass is having on — to pick just one issue — the accuracy of carbon-emissions accounting.
This is among the more important stories I’ve done on this issue since I started covering it in 2018. Hopefully, it will serve as a trustworthy resource for new reporters coming to this story and heavily lobbied policymakers trying to figure out who and what to believe when it comes to energy generation and actual climate mitigation.