The 'Green' Biomass Industry Pruitt Called 'Carbon Neutral' Uses Typical Fossil Fuel Industry Tricks to Pollute More

Read time: 8 mins
Aerial view of Enviva wood pellet production plant in North Carolina

This past week, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt declared that the EPA would now consider burning wood and other forest products for energy as “carbon neutral,” despite his previous comments expressing doubt that carbon dioxide from human activity (and therefore carbon neutrality) is even a cause for concern. In his announcement about the carbon footprint of the biomass industry, Pruitt even went as far as to claim: “This is environmental stewardship in action.” 

Not surprisingly, scientists featured in several media outlets immediately pointed out the error of his statement, and a report, released within days of Pruitt's announcement, highlights the environmental and public health impacts of the biomass industry.

William Moomaw, a Professor of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University who holds a PhD in chemistry, was blunt in assessing what this change in policy means for the climate.

“Between this and the Europeans it means no chance of staying within the 2 degree [Celsius] limit. It's just not possible,” Moomaw told Mashable, referencing the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) or well below 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels by 2100.

Moomaw’s reference to “the Europeans” highlights the fact that Pruitt is following in the footsteps of the European Union, which has also placed bioenergy, which includes the burning of trees converted to wood pellets, in the same “renewable and carbon neutral” category as wind and solar energy. This issue has been covered in detail in “Pulp Fiction,” a 2015 Climate Central exposé of the biomass-for-energy industry.

Pruitt's decision was welcomed by the forestry industry, which has been pushing for this “carbon neutral” classification for years and recently hired new lobbyists with old ties to Pruitt. As Inside Climate News put it: “Pruitt's Friends Became Lobbyists, Then Handed Their Clients an EPA Biomass Win.”

Converting American forests into wood pellets that are shipped to Europe and burned in biomass power plants doesn't seem to bode well for the climate, but that's not the industry's only impact. A new report by the watchdog nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) documents the biomass industry's effects on the local American communities where the wood pellet processing plants are located.

Business as Usual: Lax Regulations, No Public Input, Industry Self-Reporting

Environmental Integrity Project's report, “Dirty Deception: How the Wood Biomass Industry Skirts the Clean Air Act,” details how wood pellet production facilities in America are harming the communities where they are located and skirting environmental regulations.

The U.S. South has rapidly grown into the world’s largest wood pellet supplier. In an effort to meet renewable energy targets, European Union power companies annually import over 4.7 million metric tons of U.S. wood pellets, up from just 500,000 tons in 2009, pellets which are burned in converted coal-fired power plants. Remember that the EU classifies cutting down trees, shipping them across the Atlantic Ocean, and burning them as “carbon neutral.”

The fast-paced growth of the biomass-for-energy industry and its ability to establish itself with little government oversight or public input is reminiscent of the recent growth of fossil fuel activities such as fracking shale oil and gas and shipping volatile oil by train (dubbed “bomb trains” by rail workers).

This new report notes that “many of the air permits EIP surveyed were issued without any public notice or the ability to comment, including permits for the initial construction of facilities, in contravention of the Clean Air Act.” This approach of keeping the public in the dark is a tried-and-true approach of the fossil fuel industry. When the public is aware of the risks such projects pose to their communities, they are better prepared to voice opposition, a trend easily observed with recent oil-by-rail projects.

Terry Wechsler, an environmental attorney, explained to Reuters in 2014 why there was no opposition to recently constructed oil-by-rail facilities in Washington state. “There was no opposition to the other three proposals only because we weren’t aware they were in formal permitting,” said Wechsler. Since then, local communities along the West Coast have blocked multiple new oil-by-rail facilities. 

When it comes to manufacturing wood pellets, state regulators are complicit in allowing such facilities to bypass environmental and public health rules. In North Carolina, despite the Clean Air Act requirement to use the “best available technology” to reduce emissions, EIP's report says the state “illegally allows all three Enviva plants to operate without any [volatile organic compound] VOC or hazardous air pollutant controls whatsoever.” The state approved these measures, allowing the plants to emit higher levels of VOCs, a variety of chemicals with negative health impacts, which existing technology could reduce “by 90 to 95 percent.”

The kicker? Such technology is “in widespread use at similar wood pellet manufacturing plants.”

This trend is not all that different from a recent oil-by-rail case in California in which local regulators worked with oil companies to “make the math work” to help the companies avoid in-depth environmental review at oil storage facilities.

In addition to regulators letting the wood pellet industry off the hook from using the best available pollution control technology, they also often leave emissions monitoring and reporting to the manufacturers themselves, resulting in situations where, according to EIP's report, “in-house testing is not subject to the rigorous regulations and review procedures meant to ensure testing is an accurate reflection of true emissions.”

Furthermore, the report details that when wood pellet facilities in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama underwent outside emissions monitoring, their actual emissions were many times the maximum amount permitted for the facility. And yet the report finds that “most states have yet to take meaningful action to address the problem.”

EIP found one wood pellet production facility in Texas that was emitting 10 times the allowed amount of VOCs. “Rather than require the facility to comply with legal limits,” the report says, “Texas officials are proposing to simply raise the limits to let the facility continue to emit dangerous levels of pollution.”

Environmental Injustice

The health and environmental risks of these facilities are not equally absorbed across race and income in the communities where they are located either.

In the U.S., wood pellet production facilities were “50 percent more likely to be placed in environmental justice communities,” Sami Yassa, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Energy Program, noted during a conference call with reporters about EIP's report.

“Georgians have first-hand experience with the dangers posed by this industry,” Vicki Weeks, Georgia State Coordinator for the Dogwood Alliance, stated in a press release. “Their plants are typically sited in poor rural areas where communities with little access to effective health care are being hard hit by their unchecked air pollution.”

Lower income and minority communities have fewer resources to fight for their rights to clean air, water, and land, and are often the location for polluting facilities — an approach the fossil fuel industry has employed with coal plants, petrochemical plantsoil-by-rail, and fracking.

One recent example of this approach occurred when a mostly white community in Greeley, Colorado, opposed the development of 24 oil and gas wells near its school. In the face of this opposition, the company instead chose to frack the wells near a low-income school with a high minority population, which was even closer to the proposed drilling site than the first school. At least one industry executive has admitted this “don’t frack the rich” approach is a strategy for the industry.

And while the wood pellet facilities are certainly polluting the air in these communities, that is not the end of the risk. Large piles of wood pellets are prone to spontaneous combustion.

EIP notes: “Of the 15 largest operating wood pellet facilities, at least eight have had fires or explosions since 2014, including at factories in North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas that released large amounts of air pollution or injured employees.” Due to the nature of the fires, they are difficult to put out. One fire at the German Pellets storage silo in Port Arthur, Texas, burned for two months in 2017, resulting in a lawsuit by local residents.

The Carbon Neutral Catch-22

One of the main assumptions made by Pruitt, the EU, and the forest products industry is that burning trees is carbon neutral because newly planted trees will replace them and pull the equivalent carbon back out of the atmosphere. The blatant flaw in this argument is that when a power plant burns an oak tree today, all of its carbon is released … today. Meanwhile, a new oak won’t even produce its first acorn for 20 to 30 years.

Cutting down forests to burn to generate electricity is not in any way ‘green’ or carbon neutral — and in fact, creates a large amount of air pollution,” said Patrick Anderson, co-author of the EIP report. “Even if the trees are replanted, not all survive — and those that do will take decades or centuries to grow to the same size, and therefore the same carbon dioxide absorbing potential of the trees that were eliminated.”

Putting carbon into the atmosphere today and making a plan to remove it over the next 50 to 100 years is bad news for an already overloaded climate and international ambitions to limit human impacts to it.

As Moomaw told Mashable: “It's a bad idea because anything that has carbon in it produces carbon dioxide when you burn it. This is horrific.”

And as the Environmental Integrity Project's report highlights, it's also a bad idea because of the health risks to communities near wood pellet production facilities in the U.S., not to mention the communities near the power stations where the pellets are burned in the EU.

Main image: Enviva wood-pellet plant in Ahoskie, North Carolina. Credit: Photo provided by Environmental Integrity Project

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