Wood Pellets: Fool Us Twice?

When President Barack Obama said in his 2014 State of The Union address that: “natural gas – if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change,” he was one of many to praise the new and promising industry. In office, the Obama administration aggressively embraced the replacement of coal with gas as a key part of meeting its 2030 climate targets. Natural gas was heralded as the bridge fuel that would wean the country off coal, with limited infrastructure investment, until the alternative energy sources of the future were ready to bear America’s great and growing energy burden. Because gas emits around half as much CO2 as coal when burned, the promise of this “bridge fuel” inspired a pragmatic feeling of hope among environmentalists and policy makers alike.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. As community activism and sound scientific study caught up with industry promises, economic stimulation, and red tape cutting, natural gas expansion painted a much more toxic picture across America. While natural gas does release less CO2 than coal when burned, the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with natural gas use are now thought to be even greater than those of coal. Natural gas is primarily composed of methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2 over a 20-year period, and 36 times more powerful over 100 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This methane frequently leaks out during drilling, transportation, and end use, a fact that was overlooked, or greatly underestimated, in many industry and government emissions projections. Not only do these leaks pollute the air and cause explosions, but the entire extraction and transportation process of natural gas is fraught with toxic air pollution, water pollution, habitat loss, and destructive man-made earthquakes. Fracking also consumes huge amounts of water, often transported to remote locations. Concerns have also been raised over the chemicals used in the mixture injected into wells, including the possibility of groundwater contamination.

While many still contend that fracked gas is essential to American energy stability and independence, few not on the industry payroll still claim it brings any environmental benefit. Even though environmentalists and politicians have moved on to new miracle solutions, the buildout of natural gas power plants and pipelines needlessly sunk costs into new gas infrastructure that delayed implementing energy efficiency measures and cheaper renewable energy. It was an attractive proposal that had disastrous results. Too good to be true solutions, like fracked gas, still serve as a central component of many countries’ decarbonization plans.

Now with the world on the precipice of climate destruction that requires urgent, meaningful action, we cannot afford to relearn the hard lessons of the fracked natural gas industry all over again. Temporary, pragmatic-sounding environment or climate solutions promoted by industry can become virtually permanent infrastructure that is polluting and dangerous. Nevertheless, just in time for what we all may hope is a sea change in action against climate change, a new peddler has appeared with its own magic beans that will help solve climate change — without requiring the difficult changes necessary to actually do so. The production of biomass wood pellets, though growing rapidly, is still a relatively small and quiet industry. Wood pellets are created through a process of drying, chopping and compressing wood into small, dehydrated cylinders that are then burned in traditional coal power plants to generate steam for electricity. Its impacts are often unseen, and in some cases happen on a timescale that we still have proven incapable of incorporating into our ecological, economic and philosophical ethics.

Like the brand of “natural” gas, wood pellets evoke an innocent outward image. Someone who hears about wood pellets would probably imagine them in a rustic cabin in Vermont, where pellets keep the home warm and full of wood smoke smell one bag at a time. But the wood pellet industry has far more in common with its fracking competitors than this idyllic winter scene. Just like the gas industry, wood pellet biomass corporations routinely make extravagant promises to bring jobs and income to depressed rural communities. These communities are being sold on hollow promises of massive royalties, local prosperity and abundant jobs that always seem to be just around the corner.

While more and more environmental groups and community activists are wising up to this spin, industrial wood pellet corporations continue to present themselves as environmentally mainstream even as the evidence increasingly points to the opposite. It is this continued insistence in the face of evidence that makes wood pellets so reflective of an era that some have come to regard as ‘post-truth’. A cursory look at a biomass corporation’s website or social media offers much of the same content and messaging as the environmental advocacy groups that condemn them. They often link to calls for action on climate change and emphasize biomass’ role as a solution, even if the content of the piece suggests no such thing.

For example, Enviva Biomass, a privately-owned corporation operating seven processing plants in the southeastern United States which produce three and a half million metric tons of wood pellets each year, recently Tweeted a link to an article from Biomass Magazine. Though journalistic integrity might not inherently apply to industry magazines, the article claimed to summarize a recent report on biomass by the UK Committee on Climate Change (UKCCC). In both cases, the industry magazine and corporate twitter account asserted that the Climate Change Committee of the United Kingdom, their biggest importer, called for more wood pellets from renewable wood pellet companies just like Enviva.

The report itself, however, reads more like a condemnation of wood pellets and the actions of its producers. It contains very little the CEO of Enviva would want publicized. While a particularly galling example of what a low opinion they seem to have of their readers, the UKCCC report is just one example of an age in which a lie is not a lie if someone has the audacity to keep asserting its truth. Whether it is a call from the Washington Post editorial section for urgent action on climate or a call to end coal burning, Enviva and the wood pellet industry promote themselves as part of the chorus calling for true action on climate while undermining those actions from the start.

The UKCCC Report begins with the assertion that “biomass can be produced and used in ways that are both low-carbon and sustainable. However, improved governance will be essential to ensure this happens in practice.” The conditions put on what genuinely renewable wood pellets would be sound pretty familiar to those put forth by the gas industry that was once so small. Biomass, let alone wood pellets, makes sense if and only if the industry adheres to strict and enforced regulation, phases down over time and “must be as part of a system of sustainable land use where, as a minimum requirement, carbon stocks in plants and soils increase over time.” But like the gas industry, wood pellet corporations are not growing their profits just to bow out when solar and wind are ready to take their place. When industries grow and lobby, it is not to make themselves more responsible; it is to be big enough to be able to pay for the privilege of doing whatever they want. The UKCCC recommends the exact opposite of this action. Namely, they suggest that policy makers “improve UK and international governance over biomass feedstocks” and “the long-term role of biomass imports to the UK must depend on the success of these efforts.” Additionally, “as a general rule, unsustainable or high-risk feedstocks (e.g. feedstocks from primary, high-carbon, highly biodiverse or slow-growing forests) should be regulated out.” Wood pellet material sourcing leads to massive deforestation of critical habitats, and Enviva alone is responsible for creating 50 acres of clear-cut land each day. Meanwhile, Enviva proudly shared a report recommending that regulation “explicitly rule out the harvest of whole forest tracts exclusively for energy uses” despite engaging in that exact process.

The science, as described by the in-depth UKCCC report is simple: “Old-growth woodlands are large stores of carbon. Over all but the longest timescales, harvesting these stores will lead to large losses in forest carbon that will outweigh any benefits from avoided fossil fuel emissions in the energy system.” While Enviva says that their wood pellets should be considered renewable alongside all other biomass, the report they shared tells a different story. Namely that “the creation of biomass pellets is a particularly energy-intensive process. Its elimination from biomass supply chains, where possible, can help to substantially reduce supply chain emissions.” Hardly something they would want to put on a billboard. The report actually calls for more regulation, while Enviva claims that they are already held down by interest groups and unnecessary precautions. According to the UKCCC, the current regulatory system that Enviva takes full advantage of, will remain inadequate “without additional monitoring, reporting and verification systems, the international accounting system does not, by itself, provide sufficient incentives for both individual importers and exporters of biomass feedstocks to ensure land carbon stocks are not reduced”. The report also leaves us with a warning that, as has happened with industries before it, “governance will become more critical in the future as supply scales up and the value of biomass rises”.

“Natural” gas is fast on its way to inspiring the same bemused reaction as “clean” coal, and renewable wood pellets need to join them in the junk bin of million-dollar PR strategies. We simply do not have the time to direct efforts towards feeling good about climate change while doing nothing to slow its progress.

The promise of wood pellets has proven itself to be a deceitful stowaway, leeching off the environmental movement and smuggling itself into the clean energy future we need. The industry is cynically taking advantage of the enthusiasm for solutions to our shared global plight, leaving only cynicism in its wake. Another failed endeavor threatens to teach us all that there are no real solutions, so we might as well keep doing what we are doing.

Despite the evidence, the fracked gas industry insisted that it was clean. Despite the fact that cutting down forests will not help fight climate change, the world continues to accept wood pellet biomass. It might seem like a sound electoral strategy, appealing to a population growing in concern over climate change while sacrificing nothing. The cynical win-win presented by the wood pellet industry allows these countries to pat themselves on the back for embracing renewables without making any meaningful changes. But this accounting fraud will have ramifications beyond the lives of the people who have benefitted from the deception.

Expanding biomass wood pellets’ use is risky, dirty, and — most of all — unnecessary. It has taken years of effort to try to move American politics past pseudoscience and climate denial. We cannot waste these last opportunities for meaningful action on a pipe dream. President Obama was not lying when he said that fracking has a place in America’s clean energy future “if extracted safely.” He placed the same caveat on the industry as everyone else. But caveats, hopes and promises leave room for manipulation, quick talk and ambiguity. The clean energy lies told by the gas industry eventually buckled under the destructive reality they left in their wake across America. The carbon in the atmosphere and the trees in North Carolina will be made worse by the wood pellet industry no matter what spin is used to sell it now. Wishful thinking and the repetitive denial of facts will not solve climate change, protect communities, or maintain a healthy environment. To ignore the destruction of what we value by the people claiming to preserve it is to accept that flagrant lying and calculated manipulation are all any corporation needs to sell a drink of water to a drowning man in our post-truth era.

It is easy to want to retreat into the comforting cynicism of seeing any solution as being hopelessly tainted by cultural dependence on destructive industries, or just hopelessly unrealistic. The answer to climate change is not wood pellets. But that does not mean there is no just answer to climate change. We must remember that despondency arrives so readily not because it is abundant, but because it is easy. If we take the hard and good path, if we join each other and act against the willing disregard of our environment and humanity, we will have the power to make change.

Click here to read our report Clear Cut and arm yourself with the knowledge to fight back.

Liam McAuliff, former RCC Communications Intern, is the Online Communications Manager for American Rivers.