Bioenergy in Europe Threatens North American Wetland Forests

According to a new analysis released today, some of the most threatened forests in America are on the outskirts of iconic southern cities, including Norfolk, Biloxi, Savannah, and Baton Rouge. These last remaining wetland forests, which have helped shape the heritage and identity of these regions, are under imminent threat of destruction by the emerging wood pellet industry in the South - an industry using our forests to feed a growing demand by Europe to burn wood as energy.

In 2013, NRDC sounded the alarm over energy companies that were taking wood from our forests in the southeastern U.S. that could be ground into pellets and burned for energy in large-scale power plants - primarily overseas in Europe. We warned that the massive fuel needs of these energy companies could drive additional logging, threaten sensitive forested ecosystems and increase carbon emissions significantly, contributing to climate change at a time when we need to be rapidly cutting our carbon pollution.

Over the course of the last two years, this trend has grown beyond even our worst expectations. In 2013, the United States exported nearly 3.2 million tons of wood pellets to large-scale power plants in the EU. This has skyrocketed since and could reach as high as 70 million tons by 2020. Together, eight states in the southeastern United States--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia--now make up the top exporting region for wood pellets to the European Union. The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium are the top importers.

While Wood pellet manufacturers and their major customers claim that pellets from these mills are composed entirely of sawdust and other mill residues, tree trimmings, and diseased or "problem" trees not suitable as timber, studies have concluded that logging residuals alone are unlikely to meet biomass fuel market demands and that healthy, whole trees (e.g., pulpwood) will be needed. Our research, along with the research of other organizations, shows that the harvest of whole trees is already taking place.

In light of this explosive growth, NRDC undertook a first-of-its-kind analysis to assess the potential scale of the threat from these wood pellet mills to some of the most biologically rich wetland forests in the United States - known as bottomland hardwood forests. Our report reveals that millions of acres of these vulnerable forests are in the bull's-eyes of existing and proposed wood pellet mills' potential sourcing areas. Working with the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI), we compiled data showing the geographic nexus between the region's unprotected bottomland hardwood forests and existing and proposed wood pellet manufacturing facilities, placing the threats to these forests in stark visual relief.

Bottomland hardwood forests in the southeast U.S. are not planted forests (i.e., plantations) - which are fast growing trees typically cultivated and fertilized like crops. Instead, bottomland hardwoods are natural, slow-growing forests that occur in stream and broad river floodplains in a mixed canopy of trees - such as towering bald cypress and swamp tupelo, red maple, green ash, American elm, and black gum, as well as numerous species of oak trees. The trees in these forests can live for hundreds of years, are an integral part of the regions' cultural heritage, deliver important ecosystem services to local communities - such as flood control - and provide critical habitat to a host of rare and imperiled species like the Louisiana Black bear and numerous songbirds.

Unfortunately, it is estimated that only around 20 percent of all pre-settlement bottomland hardwood forests remain today - many areas have been drained and converted to plantations, agriculture and housing developments - and only 10 percent of these are fully protected from commercial logging. Contrary to popular belief, forestry on private land in the Southeast--which constitutes more than 80 percent of forests in the region--is conducted with few restrictions and little oversight. Practices such as large-scale clearcutting, old-growth logging, wetland logging, and the conversion of natural forests to plantations are mostly unregulated and are often practiced in sensitive habitats with little protection for species. In addition to the weak legal and regulatory environment in the region, very few forest acres are certified by any sustainability regime, and there is disproportionate reliance on the least rigorous certification systems.

The potential sourcing areas for nearly every proposed pellet plant--and several currently operating plants--include critical habitat for up to 25 different species that are federally listed as imperiled or endangered. Seen here in totality for the first time, the pressure on forests in U.S. Southeast from the biomass industry is nearly ubiquitous.

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Our analysis also identifies hot spots--regions of exceptionally heavy wood sourcing where there are particularly high concentrations of established and proposed pellet facilities that overlap millions of acres of unprotected and vulnerable bottomland hardwoods. These hotspots include:

  • Virginia-North Carolina border: approximately 1.63 million acres of unprotected wetland forests fall within the assumed 75-mile sourcing radius of pellet facilities.
  • Southeastern Georgia: approximately 5.06 million acres of unprotected wetland forests fall within the assumed 75-mile sourcing radius of pellet facilities.
  • Alabama-Mississippi border: approximately 4.19 million acres of unprotected wetland forests fall within the assumed 75-mile sourcing radius of pellet facilities.
  • Louisiana: An emerging hot spot, where approximately 4.1 million acres of unprotected wetland forests fall within the assumed 75-mile sourcing area of pellet facilities.

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Source: Southern Environmental Law Center, 2014). Green polygons are those watersheds containing >3,000 acres of woody wetlands. Source: Conservation Biology Institute.

It is clear that the massive additional demand for biomass being driven by the biomass energy industry now threatens to destroy ecosystems that can never be replaced. A small amount of biopower requires a very large quantity of biomass and can drive enormous shifts in the landscape. Thus, even a limited number of conversions to biopower can have major impacts on the ground.

Today demand for wood pellet exports out of the U.S. Southeast is being driven almost exclusively by climate and energy policies in the UK and European Union. However, it is imperative that policymakers in both the EU and the United States implement key policy reforms and avoid making specific policy errors with respect to biomass energy. We recommend the following:

  • Sustainability standards must be paired with sound carbon accounting.

It is critical that policymakers reject the assumption that all biomass is carbon-neutral and restrict public subsidies and other support mechanisms to sources of biomass fuel that demonstrably reduce carbon emissions within a time frame relevant to tackling climate change.

  • Sustainability standards must be rigorous, require on-the-ground monitoring, and be verified by an independent third party.

Policymakers should require all pellets to be independently certified to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard, the strongest certification system. When it comes to sustainability standards, very few forest acres in the Southeast are certified by any sustainability regime. There is also a disproportionate use of the least rigorous certification options, such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and American Tree Farm System (ATFS) which allow some of the most environmentally harmful practices.

  • Biomass for energy should be capped to reflect the limited supplies of truly sustainable low-carbon sources.

Given that lower-carbon biomass sources are limited in supply, it is equally important that a cap be imposed on the use of biomass at levels that can be sustainably sourced (taking into consideration other competing uses--the existing traditional forest-products industry--and the pressing need to increase protected areas for sensitive forest types).

Getting this policy signal right is critical to steering the industry away from high-carbon, ecologically damaging sources of biomass and ensuring that bioenergy projects do not increase carbon emissions and adversely impact forests, carbon sinks, soil, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and water resources. It will also help direct both public resources and private investments toward energy efficiency and truly clean technologies such as wind, solar, and geothermal. Failure to do so risks distorting the marketplace toward greater use of unsustainable and high-carbon sources of biomass, with significant risks to our climate, forests, and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

About the Authors

Debbie Hammel

Deputy Director, Lands Division, Nature Program

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