Public outcry grows over uncontrolled growth of the biomass energy industry

Burning whole trees to produce electricity is dirtier than coal. And the uncontrolled growth of the biomass energy industry in the Southeast threatens our most endangered forests. But communities in the region are finally standing up and saying no. In comments submitted to the state of North Carolina today, more than 4,500 concerned citizens called for a public hearing and further environmental review of a proposed wood pellet export project at the Port of Wilmington, NC. It’s therefore critical that the NC Ports Authority fully assess the project's environmental impacts and ensure the public has a voice on this project and the future of this industry.

The port expansion project in question would lease public land at the state-owned port to a company called Enviva for the development of a wood pellet export facility.

Who is Enviva, where are these wood pellets coming from, and where are they being exported to? 

Enviva is the largest wood pellet manufacturer in the United States. The company takes woody biomass—anything from tree tops and branches to whole trees—harvested from forests in the Southeast, chips them up and manufactures wood pellets that are mixed with coal or used on their own to generate electricity in power plants. Most of these wood pellets are loaded onto cargo ships en route to being burned in power plants in the UK and EU, the largest consumers of wood pellets today. The massive fuel needs of these energy companies could double logging rates in the Southeast, putting at risk some of the most biologically-diverse forests in the world

Last year, The Wall Street Journal documented how Enviva sources wood for its flagship pellet-manufacturing mill in Ahoskie, North Carolina from clearcut wetland forests in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal ecoregion, some with trees more than 100 years old. GIS (Geographical Information Systems) maps published by NRDC and Dogwood Alliance also show how Enviva has some of our most valuable forests in its crosshairs.

Despite these serious environmental impact concerns, the NC Ports Authority has failed to meet its obligations under the State Environmental Policy Act or “SEPA”, which requires it to prepare a full Environmental Assessment—and potentially an Environmental Impact Statement—because the project involves the leasing of state land and may significantly affect North Carolina’s environment. 

Under the law, the state must assess the environmental effects of Enviva’s proposed facility as well as the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects associated with the port facility and the three new wood pellet manufacturing plants it plans to build to supply it. The location of the proposed Enviva wood pellet plants is based on their proximity to the port and their fate depends on development at the port. Even if the environmental impacts associated with wood pellet manufacturing facilities are not direct effects of the port expansion project, the entire purpose of the port facilities is to export Enviva’s wood pellets, and the port and pellet manufacturing facilities are being developed in concert.  They are therefore reasonably foreseeable effects of developing the facilities at the port.

Under SEPA, the state must also consider impacts to public health and safety, provide a plan for how adverse environmental impacts could be mitigated or avoided, and articulate a case for why this project would enhance the state’s economy and bring public benefits to its citizens. The NC Port Authority has failed on all counts. It’s also failed to hold a public hearing on the project—which would increase transparency and facilitate public awareness of this major expansion of the wood pellet industry.

To date, Enviva and others in the biomass energy industry have operated largely under the radar and with little to no regulation. The North Carolina port expansion would only fuel the unbridled growth of this industry. But this week’s public outcry signals that the tide is turning. 

NRDC stands with concerned citizens across the Carolinas in calling for state authorities to prepare a thorough Environmental Impact Statement for the project and schedule a public hearing so that the individuals most impacted by this project can have their voices heard. Our forests aren’t fuel.