The British Are Coming! The Invasion of California’s Forests?

In the midst of wildfires, drought, infestations and wild storms, California’s forests face yet another incursion, one that perhaps is not all that new: British expansion. The world’s largest wood pellet producer, Drax, a United Kingdom energy corporation, is attempting to expand the industry into California. Under the cover of a non-profit group called Golden State Natural Resources, Drax is covertly making deceiving permit applications and drumming up public support for two proposed pellet mills in Lassen and Tuolumne counties. If constructed, the mills would source wood from forests within a 100-mile radius of the facilities which includes some of the most beautiful spots in the nation.

Drax, that owns and operates wood pellet mills across the US and Canada, has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Golden State Natural Resources (GSNR). GSNR is a non-profit for rural Californians, whose mission is to “enhance the quality of life, public safety, economic development and the environment in rural California.” While GSNR states only excess and unmarketable biomass and fire fuels will be transformed into wood pellets, similar claims of using “select biomass” in the Southeast were refuted, finding that the wood pellet industry is supplying their mills with mature, hardwood trees by clear-cutting forests and lying about it.

As the Rachel Carson Council (RCC) has already extensively demonstrated in its reports Clear Cut, Bad Business, and Greenwashing, the wood pellet industry is harmful to the climate, biodiversity and anyone living in the vicinity of its pellet mills. Despite the industry’s strategies to persuade the public of their “green” and “sustainable” industry, wood pellets as a form of biomass energy are unsustainable and harmful, both to the air we breathe and to the forests we live in.

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Importantly, the MOU between GSNR and Drax dictates that upon GSNR’s completion of the California Environmental Quality Act review process, Drax and GSNR will negotiate an agreement that may include provisions like Drax’s financing GSNR’s project infrastructure, operations or staffing of project facilities, Drax’s offtake of wood pellets produced by GSNR, or any other agreement between the parties, including the exploration of a long term vision of providing a “sustainable wood fibre market.” Effectively, upon completion of GSNR’s environmental review and garnering public support, Drax will step in and run the entire wood pellet operation throughout California.

But, why is Drax hiding behind GSNR, when it has applied for these permits elsewhere in the past? Why isn’t Drax campaigning for its own public support of these projects? Is the reason specific to climate-focused California?

Perhaps it has something to do with one of its wood pellet suppliers, Enviva, recently declaring bankruptcy. Or, perhaps the California public will link the name “Drax” to the comic book character “Drax, the destroyer of worlds,” a popular star in some recent movies by Disney. A company likened as “destroyer of worlds,” is not one to be trusted with “select and sustainable harvesting.” Or, perhaps it is due to the recent news story that uncovered that the wood pellets Drax is claiming to be “sustainable and legally harvested” instead came from timber sourced from rare forests in Canada. Drax took more than 40,000 metric tons of wood from old growth forests, and not for the first time. The company has a history of sourcing wood irresponsibly and buying wood from timber companies who harvest from old growth.

As the Southeast has already extensively witnessed, the wood pellet industry is notoriously unreliable when it comes to sourcing wood “sustainably” and using only “recycled materials” for wood pellet production. The industry is clear-cutting forests, causing environmental degradation, and framing biomass as the bridge fuel to transition from coal to renewables. In reality, wood pellets are worse than coal, the fuel it is replacing. Because wood is less dense than coal, wood pellets actually produce more carbon emissions per unit of energy.

Drax currently burns 6.5 million tons of wood pellets each year in the UK, all of which are sourced overseas. Complex carbon accounting rules dictate that biomass energy is emission-free, and that any greenhouse gas emissions from burning wood are counted in the country where the trees are sourced (US and Canada), not where they are burned (UK). Because of this loophole, Drax is helping the British government meet its climate targets for the Paris Agreement by producing “zero-emission” electricity. Meanwhile, this “zero-emission” company is the UK power sector’s largest CO2 emitter, while generating only a small share of the total power. Less than 5% of UK power is generated from biomass, while fully 20% of UK power sector emissions are from biomass. That means that in 2022, Drax emitted a whopping 12.1 million tons of CO2.

So why, with the risk of bad press, further environmental degradation and substantial carbon emissions, is Drax trying to expand into the American West? Because other countries are using the same carbon accounting loophole as the UK and counting biomass burning as a “zero emissions” source of energy. Countries in Asia are increasing their demand for wood pellets, most of which are sourced from the US and Canada. Japan’s imports alone, have soared from 72,000 tons in 2012 to 4.4 million tons of wood pellets in 2021, and are projected to reach 9 million tons by 2027.

Increasing Asian demand means deforesting California could lead to major profit for Drax. By using GSNR as a front for Drax’s intentions, Drax can gain access to California’s 33 million acres of forests while avoiding the inquires of Drax’s previous dealings with forests and its questionable business practices.

There are three primary problems with Drax’s proposal that have already stirred opposition among environmental, community and local groups

First, the science is clear that active wildfire management involving timber harvests can damage fire-adapted forests. Attempts to mitigate wildfire effects by logging comes with substantial emissions costs, often grossly underestimated. While advocates claim “fuel reduction” refers only to small trees and shrubs, in practice biomass removal typically removes larger trees as well, which is the functional equivalent to clear-cutting the forest. Despite this mass clearing of biomass, the most disastrous fires in terms of loss of human life are due more to wind events than to large fuel loads.

Second, forests are key to “sequestering” carbon, that is keeping it out of the atmosphere. In the past few decades, forests around the globe have absorbed 30% of annual global CO2 emissions caused by humans. The atmospheric records and forest inventories show that forests have been taking up more CO2 in the past 50 years, and that large trees dominate carbon storage, storing disproportionately massive amounts of carbon. Meanwhile, clear-cutting forests leads to the decomposition of harvest residues and roots and an increase of CO2 emissions. It takes decades for increased use of wood products to compensate for these emissions. Avoiding harvests in the short term could generate extra climate benefits.

Third, local communities, rural as they are, cannot take more air pollution, especially at the rate emitted by wood pellet production facilities that have a history of breaking regulations or violating permits. When wood pellets are processed in mills, they produce heavy amounts of CO2 and harmful pollutants, including Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, all of which are detrimental to human health. In 2021, a Drax wood pellet facility located in a small town in Mississippi, was fined $2.5 million for major pollution violations, having exceeded the VOC emission limit repeatedly for years. VOCs are precursors to ozone and smog, which can lead to impaired lung function, asthma attacks and aggravated conditions for people with bronchitis and emphysema] These small communities have already experienced the health effects of wildfire smoke from the recent Rim Fire in 2013 as well as the Dixie Fire in 2021. They would benefit from reduced pollution, not more. In response to the GSNR wood pellet proposal, the Center for Biological Diversity and Partnership for Policy Integrity have already voiced their serious concerns about the “public health, climate and environmental implications” alongside thirty local, statewide and national organizations. They all stand in opposition to “promoting this dirty, unjust industry in a climate-forward state like California.”

Finally, retaining these forests in the face of factors like climate change, droughts and storms is becoming increasingly difficult. Logging them further will not help. Despite what GSNR is saying about the wood pellet industry, how can we trust Drax to keep to their word, when in every other instance they have not? It is unlikely Californians will see any real benefits, only clear-cut forests and polluting pellet mills. Even as Californian forests struggle, Drax is using GSNR to exploit Californian resources and fuel an industry that lies about its ‘“renewable” status, its resource sourcing and its emissions rate. At a crucial time when Californians are looking forward, Drax is advocating three steps back.

RCC Stanback Fellow – Jackson Ronald

Jackson Ronald is a Master of Environmental Management student at Duke University studying Environmental Economics & Policy and Energy in the Environment. Deeply curious and interested in the environment, he is passionate about the intersection of environmental law, indigenous justice and the energy transition.