It sounded like such a good idea.
Europeans, looking for environmentally friendly ways to generate power, would rely on wood pellets to comply with new mandates to reduce carbon emissions.
North Carolina, with its forests and available ports, would meet the demand.
Good for the environment, good for the economy, right?
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A recent investigation by the Washington Post shows this arrangement is far from “carbon-neutral.” The report, backed by data from an independent analysis, shows that cutting down hardwoods in North Carolina and Virginia to make these wood pellets produces 2.5 more times carbon pollution than continuing to burn coal for 40 years and more than three times the carbon pollution over 100 years.
Meanwhile, here in North Carolina, wood pellet production is not only making the climate worse, it’s also hurting our forests, birds and wildlife.
In response to increasing demand from Europe, the wood pellet industry is focusing on wood from the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains in the southeastern United States. Much of this wood comes from whole hardwood trees that are clearcut and hauled to pellet facilities. The trees are ground into chips, dried and formed into pellets. The pellets are transported to ports where they are shipped to European power plants and burned with, or as a substitute for, coal to produce energy.
This hunger for wood pellets is threatening North Carolina’s forests – and the birds that call them home. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. exports of wood pellets more than doubled between 2012 and 2014, making us the largest global exporter of pellets. More than two dozen pellet factories have been built in the Southeast in the past decade.
And while the companies harvesting pellets call the wood “waste,” there is plenty of evidence that mature hardwood trees are being cut down to create pellets. Loss of mature hardwood forests harms numerous species of birds dependent on these forests for survival, such as the brown-headed nuthatch, Swainson’s warbler and the prothonotary warbler.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 60 percent of the 30 million acres of bottomland forests that once covered the southeastern United States have been destroyed. As a result, numerous species dependent on the forests targeted by the wood pellet industry are rare and declining. At least 22 species of birds dependent on coastal plain bottomland hardwood forests are already the focus of conservation efforts to protect them.
In other words, these birds and their habitat are already at risk – and clearcutting for wood pellets is only making things worse.
To protect these birds for generations – and to make sure we are not making our climate problems worse – we need life-cycle carbon accounting and protocols for forest harvesting and bioenergy production. Here in North Carolina, we need state and federal agencies to implement carbon management rules, policies and practices on public lands to protect forests and habitats.
The North Carolina General Assembly can also help – by requiring adoption of forest management guidelines or third-party sustainability standards by power generators and biofuel producers. Such guidelines would protect forest productivity, wildlife habitats, riparian buffers and other sensitive areas.
The need for these steps is urgent. New, peer-reviewed scientific studies published last fall show that more than 300 North American bird species are at risk from climate change. These birds include iconic North Carolina species such as the brown pelican and the wood thrush, along with dozens more. It is no exaggeration that unless we begin to address our challenges with global warming, many of the bird species so many of us love will be gone by the time our children and grandchildren are grown.
It doesn’t have to happen that way, however. With prudent, sensible policies – including responsible management of our forests – we can have a healthy economy and a healthy environment, including the birds so many of us love and enjoy.
But we have to get started – and responsible wood pellet policies are a great place to begin.
Heather Hahn is the executive director of Audubon North Carolina.