Old growth longleaf pine trees that towered as tall as 30 meters covered up to 90 million acres of the southern United States when English settlers first arrived to America in the late sixteenth century.
When cut, these ramrod-straight trees made an ideal ship’s mast, so many of the best specimens were cut down for use by the British navy. Others were slashed for “naval stores” — tar, pitch, rosin and turpentine — that were exported to England as early as 1608. Today, those majestic, old-growth longleaf pine forests are almost gone.
Given that these trees take 150 years to mature and grow for over 300, they were not replaced. Today, in my state of North Carolina, the British are still effectively cutting our forests. Our trees are being chopped into pellets, trucked up to 200 miles to a port on our southern coast, dispatched across the Atlantic in container ships, and burned in UK power plants.
Even here, few people know this, because this environmental travesty occurs in poor, rural areas of color, where people are already beset by low health outcomes and high unemployment.
And for what? So you can tell yourselves that our trees are your “renewable biomass” and therefore better than burning coal. Apparently, burning our trees and leaving us a denuded landscape meets a European Union standard for carbon reduction.
I attended a public hearing last month by North Carolina’s Division of Air Quality in the latest county where Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, wants to expand operations. To get an idea of the surroundings, the hearing was held in a rural high school where nearly 64 percent of all children are considered economically disadvantaged and 45 percent of students are chronically absent.
Enviva put forward all the requisite support, including its VP for environmental affairs, director of sustainability policy, sustainability foresters, supporters from forestry and loggers’ associations, and a woman representing Enviva’s “community partnership.”
At a PR and legal level, the Enviva supporters said all the right things: more trees are planted in North Carolina than are cut down; the Enviva plant supports scholarships, apprenticeships, school supply drives, 300 “direct and indirect jobs;” and the company’s “significant capital investment” toward the proposed air quality permit modification seemed to meet what is required by law.
So why not let the Enviva plant in tiny Garysburg, North Carolina, spew out 46 percent more wood pellets than it did before? That’s 781,000 tons of wood pellets each year, not counting the three more Enviva plants in my state alone.
Plenty of reasons. Most of those newly planted trees come in the form of “pine plantations,” comprised of rows upon rows of artificially fertilized, crop-like trees, where the undergrowth is controlled just like weeds on a tobacco farm, and where biodiversity does not exist.
J.C. Woodley, a retired environmental biologist for the US Environmental Protection Agency who was raised in the latest county where Enviva wants to raze more forests, said: “The pine forests are monocultures – they’re just one kind of tree. They don’t store carbon in the manner that an old growth forest does.”
Of course, an old growth forest would take 30 to 40 years to regenerate, and environmentalists say Enviva wants to cut whole trees again faster than that. They also report that Enviva is cutting bottomland and coastal forests with wetland habitat, even though Enviva says it does not source wood from sensitive forests.
But really, who would know? In my state, private landowners have significant rights to do what they want with their land, even though we need the forests to help protect us from unprecedented hurricanes and rains that left sizeable areas of my state under water just last year.
None of the biomass companies have policies where they reject the use of whole trees, according to the Dogwood Alliance, one of the groups fighting the cutting of our forests for the UK’s fuel. When these companies insist that they only use “residual” trees, that is, the treetops and branches, that promise is not in their company policies.
Environmental groups say they've been hindered when they want to see Enviva’s cutting and transport operations for themselves, instead of taking the company’s word for how it obtains its “product.”
The three other North Carolina Enviva plants are also in poor, distressed, rural counties where people struggle with poor health, low rates of insurance and not enough doctors. In two of the four counties, most residents are African-Americans, and in one, Northampton, discrimination against them was historically so bad that white county leaders took their intentionally racist voter “literacy test” all the way to the US Supreme Court, which in 1959 decided it was okay.
Are these the places where a biomass company was likely to meet strong community opposition?
No, says Woodley, the retired EPA scientist. People’s “issues are bigger to them than this, like keeping the electricity on.” Besides, Woodley added: “They’re very proud of those jobs,” probably not realizing that taxpayers of this poor county and the rest of the state are also helping to pay for them.
Enviva has gotten $6 million in state and local subsidies, in part by taking advantage of North Carolina’s anti-environment Republican legislative majority to open and repeatedly expand operations. This is the same majority that in 2017 enacted an 18-month moratorium on the construction of new wind farms, even though the state’s lone wind operation had become the largest taxpayer in two other economically distressed counties the very day it opened.
Enviva’s jobs and even Enviva’s $5 million endowment of a Forest Conservation Fund to preserve bottomland hardwood trees in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina and Virginia doesn’t match the subsidies it receives.
Belinda Joyner, who leads the Concerned Citizens of Northampton County group, told state regulators at last month’s public hearing: “You don’t live here, so therefore you don’t have to be bothered with the noise. You don’t have to be bothered with the trucks” that grind their way to and from the Enviva plant seven days a week at all hours carrying logs or pellets. Referring to Enviva’s yearly school supply drive, Joyner added: “You’re going to kill us at the same time [that] you’re giving our children a book bag.”
But here’s the bigger picture, the thing that astounds my friends who had no idea this “sustainability” perversion is going on: the only reason why cutting our forests meets the EU standard for greenhouse gas emissions is because emissions are measured only at your power plants.
What never gets added to that equation are the effects of the carbon storage that is lost when the trees are cut down, or the carbon that is emitted by the massive, and hot, pellet plants, the carbon spewed from smog-emitting logging and pellet trucks, or the emissions from container ships that transport our trees across the Atlantic to UK power plants.
Even more astounding is that new studies are finding that burning wood pellets for fuel releases as much as, or even more, carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal.
Woodley added: “The thing that’s disheartening to me is the scam. We’re emitting and [UK power plants are] at zero emissions, according to their calculations.”
Biomass supporters will respond to this piece and PR every claim. But they cannot deny the big picture. In today’s climate crisis, it is nothing but absurd that in the UK you burn our trees to power your homes and businesses.
As one opponent at the hearing summed up: “This is a lose-lose proposition on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Cindy Elmore is a professor in the School of Communication at East Carolina University. She holds a PhD from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She was also a recipient of the Professional Fulbright in Journalism in New Zealand, and a Rotary International Fellowship for graduate study in the UK.
Image: Bobistraveling, Flickr.