Foxes guarding the henhouse; why "self-certification" in the biomass industry threatens our forests

You know what happens when the fox is left to guard the henhouse. Unfortunately, the emerging trans-Atlantic biomass energy industry—in which power companies like Drax Power and Dominion Resources, supplied by wood pellet manufacturers like Enviva, cut down forests in the U.S. Southeast to be burned in large-scale power plants—is characterized by just this kind of self-serving dynamic when it comes to environmental sustainability. 

Both Drax and Enviva have made numerous environmental claims of sustainability, relying on “self-certification”—programs under which industries develop and monitor environmental performance without participation and oversight from environmental partners or independent organizations—or certifications like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which fall well short of ensuring sustainable forestry practices. These claims have been roundly discredited as nothing more than greenwashing.

Though they might come with a nice sounding label, SFI and other certifications used by the forestry industry actually allow for destructive forestry practices, including large-scale clearcutting, logging of endangered forests, conversion of natural forests to plantations, and widespread use of toxic chemicals. The NY Times reports on a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint filed against SFI this week by environmental groups. The complaint details how SFI lacks financial independence from the industry it claims to oversee (an FTC requirement) and allows companies carrying the SFI label to engage in damaging forestry methods.

The piece illuminates that SFI is not a credible system for verifying sustainability. The practices of Enviva are a case in point:

The Wall Street Journal’s recent investigation into the biomass industry in the Southeast describes how Enviva sources trees from some of the most environmentally sensitive natural forests in the Southeast, including clear-cutting wood from wetland forests, some with trees more than 100 years old. While the industry typically argues that these types of destructive practices are isolated, such an incident is actually representative of a simple fact: Enviva’s existing forestry management certifications, (which include SFI and are detailed here), are failing to protect important ecosystems, associated species and water resources.

For its part, Drax claims that all its biomass is procured against its own robust sustainability criteria, including greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements and habitat and biodiversity protection. However, the company has not provided any assurances that it will not source whole trees in its operations and is sourcing wood pellets from Enviva, despite this evidence that they are using whole trees in their mills.

At a time when we need to be quickly cutting carbon emissions and moving our energy sector forward towards energy efficiency and real clean energy technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal, burning trees to generate electricity takes us backwards, increasing carbon pollution compared to fossil fuels like coal or natural gas. The massive fuel needs of biomass energy companies also risk doubling logging rates in the U.S. Southeast, threatening some of the most biologically-diverse forests in the world. 

That’s why NRDC, Dogwood Alliance, and other concerned organizations are putting these companies on notice with a clear and simple message: Our Forests Aren’t Fuel

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We’re calling on the biggest players in this destructive industry to put a halt on the use of whole trees until they adopt meaningful long-term policies that verify that their projects reduce near-term carbon emissions; protect forest ecosystems; and will not result in net increases to local air pollution. [You can take action and tell them to do just that here.]

Certification systems are necessary to provide independent assessments of industry performance against a set of independent standards. Many established environmental systems—for example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) for bioenergy—reliably provide such standards and assessments. [Though it’s important to note that FSC does not include a carbon accounting component]. In other circumstances, negotiated, public agreements between environmental advocates and corporations—such as the ground-breaking agreements struck between NRDC and Dogwood Alliance and large paper companies in the Southeast— provide reliable standards and monitoring. These types of substantive commitments can transform an entire industry, ensuring companies remain profitable while protecting our most precious ecosystems.

Self-certification—whether explicit or implicit within programs that do little more than provide a veneer of “green”—fails to achieve true environmental protections. It’s time for companies like Drax, Dominion and Enviva to make real commitments to sustainability and announce a long-term corporate policy to reject whole trees in their biomass operations.  

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About the Authors

Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation and Food & Agriculture programs

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