Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

The biomass debacle, West Virginia’s déjà vu, & the dangers of offshore drilling

At a meeting with forest industry leaders in Cochran, Georgia last month, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that burning biomass, like trees, to produce energy is now considered carbon neutral.

Locals and forest industry leaders were thrilled by this news. About 22 million acres of Georgia—60 percent of the state’s land mass—is covered by privately owned forests. Bleckley County, where Cochran is located, is rural and relies on agriculture, primarily timber and forestry, as a mainstay of the economy. People of all ages in the community depend on it. Pruitt knows this, too: according to the EPA press release, he read a book called The Tree Farmer to students that day.

The idea that burning biomass—trees, plants, and other organic matter—for energy is carbon neutral relies on the assumption that trees, which suck carbon dioxide out of the air, grow back. In theory, that offsets the emissions that burning them produces and makes it a renewable energy source, proponents say. But as the Washington Post reported, this “carbon neutrality” has been hotly debated among scientists for years. Trees take decades to grow back, and the same types of native trees may not be planted in their place. Plus, changes in economics or sudden development could cause landowners to forgo replanting forests altogether.

Multiple studies have been published on the topic, including one from earlier this year that deemed biomass is not carbon neutral because of the emissions from processing wood pellets, burning, and shipping. Still, 100 scientists and experts signed a letter sent to the EPA in 2016, saying they think the process is carbon neutral. The EPA’s Science Advisory Board couldn’t even decide on the issue: in 2012 it wrote that “it is not scientifically valid to assume that all biogenic feedstocks are carbon neutral” and said the answer would require doing more analysis. 

Biomass is logged or harvested and processed into wood pellets. The demand for wood pellets—primarily made from Southeastern U.S. forests— is growing rapidly in the European Union, where it is often burned for energy instead of coal. The EU considers the process carbon neutral, and it is helping countries meet their Paris climate agreement targets. That loophole in the law has led to the biomass boom, as John Upton wrote for Climate Central in 2015.

The U.S. now exports 7 million metric tons of wood pellets made from forests to Europe annually. According to a 2017 report, the industry was worth $7.65 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $15.9 billion by 2022. Some of the biggest wood pellet plants are in theDeep South, North Carolina and Virginia. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, Enviva—one of the largest biomass companies—wood pellet plants in North Carolina and southeast Virginia will require harvesting about 70 square miles of forests each year to keep up with demand. The opportunities for wood pellet plant construction are creeping northward, too: West Virginia and Kentucky have both invested in the industry and expressed interest in building facilities.

A Western North Carolina forest. Credit: Lyndsey Gilpin

While the biomass industry’s footprint in the South has grown exponentially, so have emissions. The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), an environmental group, recently released a report showing that in addition to releasing greenhouse gases, wood pellet manufacturing facilities across the South release soot particles that can be carcinogenic or can trigger asthma and heart attacks. The report surveyed 21 wood pellet plants from Georgia to Texas, and found that a third of them violated permits in 2017 by releasing illegal amounts of air pollution. Others were issued faulty permits by state agencies.

Drax, a biomass company with wood pellet plants in Mississippi and Louisiana, reported emissions at one Louisiana facility at 20 tons a year, but the EIP report claims it is actually emitting about 250 tons a year. The group is now asking Louisiana officials to better regulate two wood pellet plants that export to Britain. EIP also drew attention to Georgia’s industry, since the state is expected to double its emissions after several new wood pellet plants are built. 

The EPA’s announcement was relatively quiet, and the news cycle moved on fairly quickly. Promoted as a way to reduce “policy uncertainty” for the biomass industry, the agency seems to want to wash its hands of this issue. Because these wood pellet plants—and the forests they source their wood from—are mostly located in conservative Southern states, there likely won’t be as much pushback from lawmakers, communities, and businesses as there has been with other Trump administration policy changes like solar tariffsand offshore drilling. That’s not the fault of local communities, necessarily, who are receiving conflicting reports: the science is still unclear, policies have been stalled for years, the EU is forging ahead, biomass is touted by lawmakers and companies as an environmentally friendly solution for struggling rural economies. It’s not hard to see why this move is exciting to Georgia tree farmers and others across the region. 

But it’s an immediate fix for a problem that won’t manifest fully for decades, and one that will impact the next generation in ways no one can foresee. The South already has less public land than other parts of the U.S., most of it overtaken long ago by industry. The region is far behind when it comes to many renewable energy policies because of the power the fossil fuel industry still wields. By the time these forests grow back—if they are ever allowed to—we will have already seen significant consequences of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The landscapes we know and love will be permanently altered. The communities who rely on them, the ones who trust these promises, will be too.

Stories worth your time

West Virginia lawmakers are eager to support the natural gas industry by offering tax breaks and relaxing regulations. ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail provide an in-depth look at how some West Virginians fear that the state won’t reap economic benefits from the industry but will suffer long-term environmental, health and infrastructure consequences—just like what happened with coal. “It’s déjà vu for the people who sat here 130 years ago and gave away our coal wealth to big out-of-state companies,” said one state senator. “That’s what we’re about to do again.”

The Southeast has been left out of the wind energy boom. Vox explains how, along with less wind, a lack of renewable energy-friendly policies and incentives for wind farms have held the region back. The story relies on data from new interactive maps by the U.S. Geological Survey, the American Wind Energy Association, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The New York Times Magazine follows the journey of Tina Washington as she retraces the life and death of her grandfather Elwood Higginbotham, a labor organizer and sharecropper who was lynched in Mississippi in 1935.

News flying under the radar

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will accept more public comments on whether the review process for water quality certifications by the Army Corps of Engineers for the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines was adequate.

The Trump administration moved to roll back offshore drilling safety regulations set in place by former President Barack Obama’s administration after the BP oil spill. Some Florida lawmakers are heavily criticizing the move.

North Carolina is launching an Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, which will advise state environmental regulators on issues related to environmental justice like coal ash, industrial farming, and water quality.

The Southern Environmental Law Center sued Alabama Power over the utility’s rate fees for customers with rooftop solar, calling them “unreasonable, unjust, discriminatory, contrary to the public interest and otherwise unlawful.”