North Carolina Trees Are Feeding Europe’s ‘Clean Energy’ Revolution

Media Fellowship

Scientists and environmental activists have raised concerns about the carbon benefit of burning wood pellets for power. But the industry churning them out in North Carolina has continued to grow.

train in front of large storage containers
Teaser Image Caption
A train brings biomass to the Drax Power Station.

Retired educator Ruby Bell has lived most of her life on the border of Duplin and Sampson counties in the small town of Faison, a part of the state infamous for its concentrated animal farming operations; hogs outnumber people 30 to 1 here. 

Decade-long battles have not kept out the pipelines, poultry farms, meat processing plants, and the state’s largest landfill. 

In 2014, Bell heard that Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, planned to add to the area’s environmental burden by building its third North Carolina plant a few miles from her home. She decided to do whatever she could to stop it.

“We knew that if the plant was coming, they were going to cut the trees in order to make the pellets and that would cause more pollution and dust,” said Bell. “My husband said ‘I don’t know what you’re wasting your time for. They’re gonna get that plant because nobody is going to stand up to it.’”

The prediction turned out to be right. In 2016, Enviva built the Faison plant on a 200-acre site off the highway. After reaching its production capacity of 500,000 metric tons of pellets per year, the company received permission from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality in 2019 to expand production capacity to 657,000 tons. 

“There were hearings and things of that nature, but Enviva said ‘we’re going to bring jobs and it’ll be good for the economic stability of Sampson County.’ Hogwash!,” said Bell. “And our county government gave them money to help them. I was just so disappointed in that.” 

The incentives are something opponents often cite; county officials say they’ve helped bring much-needed jobs and economic benefit to the region. 

Maryland-based Enviva now operates 10 wood pellet facilities in the southeast. The four in North Carolina are permitted to process up to 2.3 million metric tons of pellets per year. The Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board noted that each plant is located in a community that is at least 25 percent non-white, and that has high poverty rates.

Unable to stop the Sampson County plant, Bell began working with other grassroots groups to stem the industry’s growth around the state — starting with Enviva’s first U.S. wood processing plant in Ahoskie, about 100 miles to the northeast. The plant opened in 2011 and now processes over 400,000 metric tons of wood pellets per year; its planned expansion would increase production to 571,000 metric tons. The population of the census tract where the Ahoskie plant is located is 69 percent Black, a textbook case of environmental racism, say environmentalists and activists.

“NC DEQ has continued to approve permits to expand wood pellet production in North Carolina,” Bell said at a November meeting that the Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board requested about its concerns. “Granting Enviva’s permit would allow them to greatly expand production, resulting in more dust pollution, truck traffic, forest destruction, and the increase of some harmful toxins.”

Residents in the mostly Black and brown communities near the four plants all register similar complaints: They say the factories operate around the clock, emitting humming and banging sounds at decibel levels akin to living near an airplane runway. When logs are fed into a machine to strip the bark off, one neighbor described it as a “boom that shakes you to your toes.” The bone-rattling vibrations move everything not nailed down. The noise is particularly pronounced in the winter, when the leaves aren’t there to act as a buffer.

They also complain of diminished air quality that makes it hard to breathe. Sawdust falls like winter snow, forcing them to wash their cars every few days and power wash their homes every few months. Long before the pandemic, some who live near the factory routinely wore masks outdoors. 

Europe’s quest to lower carbon emissions has led to a growing demand for energy from biomass, and North Carolina’s ample privately-owned forests, and generous economic development subsidies have made it ground zero for the booming wood pellet industry. The Dogwood Alliance, an Asheville-based nonprofit critical of the industry, estimates that Enviva’s facilities in North Carolina alone consume about 50,000 acres of forest each year. 

Enviva says this is not a fair accounting, as tracts of forest are generally harvested for multiple purposes that can include pellets as well as lumber or pulp. “[T]he fact that an acre is harvested, does not mean that Enviva receives 100% of the volume from that acre,” a company spokesperson said via email, adding that their business model is to purchase “fiber that no one else wants.”

Environmental justice advocates were successful in their intervention on the Ahoskie facility, at least in the short term; DEQ announced in early December that it was delaying a decision on the permit. 

DEQ Public Information Officer Shawn Taylor told The Assembly via email that the agency “has taken additional time to review the concerns raised during the board’s meeting.” He said there was not a specific deadline for a decision, but “we expect to announce a decision early this year.”

Math That Doesn’t Add Up

In 2009, the European Union committed to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and increasing renewable energy to 20 percent by 2020. Key to meeting this goal was biomass, which it considered a carbon-neutral energy source on par with wind and solar power. 

Pellets made from wood that could be transported and burned in power plants accounted for a significant amount of that biomass. The EU’s consumption of wood pellets ballooned from 9.8 million metric tons in 2009, to 23.1 million in 2021.

But a number of environmentalists, researchers, and governments say that treating biomass from trees as a carbon neutral renewable energy source is an accounting trick, and the math simply does not add up. 

Derb Carter, senior adviser and attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), explained that under the 1997 Kyoto climate accord, carbon emissions are counted at the point of combustion and within the country where the fuel is burned, not where it originates. And biomass from wood is calculated as zero, under the assumption that the trees used will eventually grow back and absorb the carbon. 

Enviva touts its sustainable forestry practices, which include replanting harvested trees to reduce deforestation. The company also argues that emissions from biomass should be based not on the “fate of individual trees, but whether the forest as a whole is regenerating at a rate sufficient to maintain or increase its overall volume of the wood fiber.”

But critics say replanting is harder to enforce on privately owned forestland, and that saplings don’t have the same carbon benefits.

“Never mind that it might take decades for those trees to grow back,” said Carter.

John Talberth, an economist with the Center for Sustainable Economy, said no one is counting the carbon emissions associated with logging because the logging industry had such a large say in the rules. In practice, it means European countries can meet their national emission targets without considering the loss of forests – and their potential for sequestration – or the emissions from transportation and manufacturing. 

But trees are one of the most effective tools for capturing and storing carbon; MIT researchers calculated that it takes at least 44 years for replanted trees to absorb the carbon released from burning the ones they replaced. So removing them to produce more biomass is actually speeding up climate change. 

Some research suggests that the lifecycle emissions from burning biomass from wood could actually exceed coal, though it’s the subject of ongoing scientific debate.  

Environmental advocates say the local impacts are even more clear: A 2018 Environmental Integrity Project report looked at 21 wood pellet processing plants across the South and more than half had either failed to keep emissions below permit limits or lacked sufficient pollution controls. The plants were emitting thousands of tons of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds each year, which come with health risks like respiratory problems, heart disease, and certain cancers. 

Sherri White-Williamson, environmental justice policy director for the NC Conservation Network, launched an environmental justice network in Sampson County to focus on hog farms and landfill issues. She knew about the Sampson County Enviva plant and, working with other coalition groups like the Dogwood Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center, came to understand the broader impact.

She sees the wood pellet industry as another in a long list of industries that has not delivered on its promises to improve the economy without negatively impacting the environment. 

“I don’t believe that Enviva has kept any of those promises as I have talked with community members most affected by the plant,” said White-Williamson. “I understand that some community members living near the plant still have concerns about the air quality. Enviva will make contributions to local community organizations, law enforcement, or other public service entities to assuage any underlying fears that impacted communities or local governments might have.”

How The Pellets Get Made

At the ground level, timber harvesting operations are generally difficult to see, shielded by crops or dense forests. But from 2,000 feet in the air, it’s harder to hide. 

On a beautiful fall morning in October, I climbed into the passenger side of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk with Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette to get a bird’s eye view. 

We lift off near downtown Wilmington and bank northwest toward Pender, Sampson, and Duplin counties, where the wood pellet industry is most active. What we see first are the uniformed rows of elongated, white barns with steel-roofs that house hogs by the thousands and chicken by the tens of thousands, glinting in the sunlight. 

Then we emerge into a clearing where the site momentarily takes my breath and voice away. Not only is this undeniably clear cutting where every tree is removed from a wooded area, but it resembles a forest crime scene. 

“Oh, my God,” I utter in shock. “It looks like the Hunger Games!”

The landscape is littered with heavy machinery—feller bunchers to cut and gather several trees before felling them; skidders to drag trees from the forest to the clearing; harvesters, forwarders, knuckleboom loaders. The only visible trees are bundled like matchsticks in neat rows along the perimeter of the now barren dirt fields. 

Enviva says it uses wood that doesn’t have other uses and is actually helping maintain healthy forests. “If we did not create this service, it would be left to rot on the forest floor and would be left to create forest fires,” Enviva Vice President Don Calloway told CBS News last year. 

“Most of what Enviva sources is generally not appropriate for other higher price markets — tops and limbs of trees, crooked or diseased trees, slash, understory, and  sometimes thin tree lengths,” the company said in a statement to The Assembly. “Yes, at times Enviva might take material that is or appears like an entire tree. That might be the case when either that given piece of wood is diseased or otherwise not suitable for a higher price market or if those higher price markets are not there.”

Environmental advocates like Carter, the SELC attorney, dispute that claim based on what they’ve seen on the ground. 

“They were clear cutting bottomland swamps to supply the pellet mill and there were dozens of trucks carrying hardwood logs to the biggest log pile I’d ever seen,” he said. “We eventually got the media to see and expose what was going on but by that point, it was so far down the track that we’ve been struggling to turn this around ever since.”

The Journey to Europe 

As a community organizer for the Dogwood Foundation, Bell often collects dust complaints from people living near Enviva’s Sampson County processing factory. She recalls sitting in a sawdust-covered chair in a resident’s front yard fanning away wood dust as she listened to his concerns about groundwater contamination.

Perhaps because he had grown accustomed to it, the homeowner didn’t mention the noise from the 18-wheelers that speed past the double-wides and modest brick homes delivering logs to the processing factory all hours of the day. In the span of no more than 20 minutes, Bell recounts seeing at least four trucks weighed down with uncovered logs disappear behind the narrow stand of trees separating the factory from the community where they will be dried, ground into a powder, heated, and compressed into pellets about the size of a cigarette-butt. 

An equal number emerged loaded with gigantic vacuum-sealed packages of processed wood pellets that will be transferred to the Port of Wilmington, off-loaded, and stored in the white 170-foot-tall igloo-like storage facilities lining the docks. 

Within a few weeks, the pellets start the 15-day, 3,500 mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean to England; the average container ship journey consumes 63,000 gallons of bunker fuel a day. After arriving at a port, they travel by train or truck to the Drax facility in Selby, North Yorkshire, the largest renewable power station in the U.K. and largest biomass burning facility in the world. Enviva is one of Drax’s biggest suppliers. 

In a way, North Yorkshire seems like the perfect spot to begin an energy transition. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, it dominated coal mining. The industry declined precipitously after World War I amid competition from abroad, but experienced a resurgence when the mines were nationalized after the second World War. But by the 1980s, the number of mines in the region shrank from 36 to just a handful. The Kellingley Colliery was the last deep mine when it shuttered in 2015, though the U.K. approved its first new mine in decades last month.

It’s a two-hour train ride from London to Selby, and then a 20-minute taxi ride to Drax’s power station. My taxi driver explained that he spent 39 years working in the Kellingley Colliery and was there when they turned out the lights for good.

The complex is located directly across the road from the private, 12-hole Drax Golf Course. Its iconic gray concrete domes are reminiscent of a Soviet-era nuclear station, complete with uniformed guards, barbed wire, and security cameras. A large bridge serves as an overpass for the tracks where up to 40 shipments of pellets arrive via train each day. 

Despite being the number-one emitter of carbon dioxide in the U.K. and number three in the E.U., the company’s website boasts of having “transformed the UK’s biggest power station to become Europe’s largest decarbonisation project.” 

The driver pulled up to the front entrance and agreed to wait for me while I took a look around. I started snapping pictures, which quickly attracted a guard’s attention. I put away my phone and made a beeline for the security building. 

“I’m a journalist from the United States writing about the wood pellet industry,” I told the security officer behind the desk. “I’d like to get a tour of the facility and talk to someone about the operations.”

He looked at me as if we weren’t both speaking English then admonished me for not pre-arranging a visit. “Well, you can’t just turn up!” He instructed me to go online and request a media visit; I did, but never received a response.

I didn’t get to see inside the facility, but I met with activists in the U.K. who are also concerned about the wood pellet industry’s impacts. Merry Dickinson is a graduate student who lives a few miles from the Drax power station; she only learned about biomass about five years ago but is now a full-time campaigner for Biofuelwatch. She says the more people learn about the impacts on communities abroad, the more opposition grows at home. 

The day before I arrived, Dickinson and a group of campaigners had disrupted a Labour Party gathering in opposition to government subsidies for biomass, citing concerns about environmental racism by locating its facilities in some of the American South’s poorest communities. She was still jazzed about the demonstration and the reaction when we met for dinner in York. 

“Drax bills itself as a very friendly, lovely renewable company that’s going to save the world, which obviously is not true,” said Dickinson. “A lot of what we do is just trying to inform people about what their money is funding abroad. We’re all paying for this devastation because Drax is very heavily subsidized here in the U.K.”

An Ocean Away

The U.K. and E.U. governments have long talked a good game about saving the planet, including proposed bans on polluting vehicles, ending financing for foreign fossil fuels, and imposing legally-binding emission targets. And, for a while, it looked as if they were serious. 

Last spring, the E.U. announced possible changes to its climate policies that would have declassified wood pellets as renewable, carbon-neutral energy. The change would have eliminated billions in government subsidies and likely devastated the U.S. wood pellet industry.

More than a dozen members of Congress, including now-retired Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Black Democrat who represents some of the poorest and most environmentally besieged counties in North Carolina, sent a letter to the parliament’s business committee arguing that new restrictions “may unintentionally undermine trade between the US and EU and negatively impact US forest health.” As WFAE reported at the time, the committee instead voted for a measure that could actually expand subsidies. 

In September, the E.U. Parliament voted to continue classifying biomass from trees as renewable energy. Enviva cheered the decision. And in December, the U.S. Congress included language in the omnibus spending bill that calls for policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.”

But opponents in the U.K. are growing increasingly concerned that the nation’s power grid is fueled by trees harvested an ocean away.

Former British MP Lord John Randall, a Tory who also served as an environmental adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, said he has come to see subsidies for the biomass industry as a continuation of the historic exploitation of natural resources that lead to environmental degradation. 

“We hear about deforestation in the Amazon, the impact on indigenous people but it’s also happening to vulnerable communities in the U.S. and Canada, countries we would regard as more forward looking,” Randall explained. “It became increasingly apparent to me that this whole wood-burning pellets and so forth is not renewable. We all know that burning wood is bad, and that they are cutting down forests and having an impact on biodiversity. However much I love biodiversity, I also want to look after people—just as much, if not more.”

Randall said the coalition has mostly used environmental arguments to oppose biofuel, but believes they should focus on the human impacts. “We’ve got powerful arguments. It is a hard sell, but I’m still reasonably hopeful that we can keep battling away on this.”

In Ahoskie, the permitting delay is not the full stop activists wanted. But the delay has given them more time to strategize and prepare. And DEQ’s Taylor said via email the agency “has also reached out to Enviva representatives to discuss community concerns and discuss recommendations that fall outside of DAQ’s current permit action.”

“I’m continuing to work with the impacted communities to make sure Enviva does what they have to do to improve the air quality,” said Bell. “I’m not trying to shut the plant down. I pray that the Lord will shut it down.” 

This article originally appeared in The Assembly on January 25, 2023. The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Washington, DC.