Press Release

Southern Forests at Risk: New Report Identifies Three Southern Forest Regions in Immediate Crosshairs of Wood Pellet Industry

First-of-its-kind maps expose millions of acres of vulnerable forests in the U.S. Southeast under threat from the rapidly-expanding wood pellet industry and rising biomass demand in Europe

Philip McGowan, 615/610-0316, pmcgowan@seigenthaler.com

NEW YORK (October 20, 2015) – A new report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reveals the imminent threat from the burgeoning wood pellet industry on three fragile forest ecosystems in the U.S. Southeast. Innovative GIS mapping techniques detail three hot spots – the Virginia-North Carolina border, Southeastern Georgia, the Alabama-Mississippi border – where both potential heavy wood harvesting from unprotected bottomland hardwood forests and established and proposed wood pellet facilities exist. The report also identifies a fourth emerging hot spot in Louisiana.

“Endangered forests across the south are in the crosshairs of a wood pellet industry that is not sustainable,” said Debbie Hammel, Senior Resource specialist with NRDC. “This mapping provides the undeniable visual proof of the threat wood pellet production poses to the South’s irreplaceable wetland forests. We need permanent protections in place today to ensure they’re not destroyed.”

Produced in conjunction with the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI), the report contains a series of maps of the South where over 24 million acres of unprotected wetland forests are susceptible to becoming feedstock for existing and proposed wood pellet mills across the region to meet the demand of European biomass energy facilities. Specifically, the data shows the geographic overlap, using a potential 75-mile radius sourcing area, between the region’s unprotected forests and existing and proposed wood pellet facilities, demonstrating the extraordinary pressures on forests within their potential harvesting territory that provide critical habitat to many rare and endangered species, filter freshwater for surrounding communities and act as a buffer against flooding and sea-level rise.

Cumulative data collected within these active areas is alarming:

  • 35 proposed or existing mills are located within the identified hot spots;
  • Nearly 15 million unprotected acres of wetland forests within a potential 75-mile sourcing radius of facilities, an area nearly the size of West Virginia;
  • An anticipated 10 million dry metric tons of production per year for all operating and proposed mills;
  • The examined hot spots are home to 606 imperiled, threatened or endangered species; and
  • 18,327 miles of impaired freshwater rivers and streams flow within the examined regions, putting the waters at new risk to logging pollution.   

The full report and collection of maps can be accessed online at: www.nrdc.org/energy/southeast-biomass-exports.asp

The demand for wood pellets stems from European policies that incentivize energy companies for producing power from sources other than coal, including trees. Since Europe’s forests are highly regulated, European power companies have turned to the largely unregulated American South for wood pellet fuel, now the top exporting region in the world for wood pellets to the European Union. Pellet exports have multiplied in recent years as manufacturers, like giants Enviva and British utility Drax Power, build new facilities. From 2012 to 2013, wood pellet exports doubled from 1.6 to 3.2 million tons. That number grew 40 percent in 2014, and is expected to reach 5.7 million tons in 2015. By 2020, wood pellet production in the region is expected to reach as high as 70 million metric tons.  

“European demand for wood pellets is skyrocketing and fueling the industry with little or no regard for unprotected Southern forests,” said Debbie Hammel. “As the need for more wood pellets grows, so does the number of mills that produce them and the sourcing areas for each. The maps clearly show that existing and potential sourcing areas are expanding and overlapping, which means we could be on the cusp of irreparable harm to these rare wetland hardwood forests and the species that rely on them to survive.” 

Hot Spot 1: Virginia-North Carolina Border

The region spanning the Virginia and North Carolina border is already experiencing intense sourcing of wood for pellet manufacturing mills, most notably by the large pellet manufacturer Enviva which operates three facilities in Southampton County, Virginia, and Northampton and Hertford Counties, North Carolina.  The company has plans to build two more facilities in North Carolina’s Richmond and Sampson Counties.  In total, nine operating and proposed mills are located within this hot spot. These facilities are expected to produce 2.6 million dry metric tons of wood pellets per year.

The 75-mile radius surrounding the proposed and operating facilities (the potential sourcing area for each) contain 1.6 million acres of unprotected woody wetlands. This includes 60% of Virginia’s unprotected woody wetlands. There are 74 imperiled, threatened or endangered found within this hot spot, including the red wolf, Delmarva fox squirrel, Roanoke logperch, Atlantic sturgeon and the green pitcher plant. The region contains 8,500 miles of impaired freshwater streams and rivers.

Hot Spot 2: Southeastern Georgia

Georgia is home to the third-highest number of bottomland hardwood and mature forests in the South, only behind Louisiana and Mississippi, and contains the largest number of woody wetland acres under threat due to currently operating facilities. This hot spot stretches from Northeast Florida, along the Georgia coastline and inland region, and reaches into South Carolina.

There are 13 operating and proposed pellet mills in this area that threaten over 5 million acres of unprotected woody wetland. This includes 85% of Georgia’s unprotected forests woody wetlands. These facilities are expected to produce 3.5 million dry metric tons of pellets per year. This hot spot is home to 152 imperiled, threatened or endangered species, including the frosted flatwoods salamander, wood stork, West Indian manatee and the relict trillium. The region contains 1,652 miles of impaired freshwater streams and rivers.

Hot Spot 3: Alabama-Mississippi Border

The border of Alabama and Mississippi has become another area of heavy sourcing for the wood pellet industry. Already five facilities are sourcing from this area, two of which are owned by Enviva, and five more have been planned. These 10 facilities are expected to produce 2.6 million dry metric tons of wood pellets per year.  The facilities’ potential sourcing areas contain 4.19 million acres of unprotected and vulnerable woody wetland acres. This includes 74% of Alabama’s unprotected forests woody wetlands. The region is home to 306 imperiled, threatened or endangered species, including the Louisiana black bear, Mississippi sandhill crane, the Northern long-eared bat and the Alabama spike mussel. There are 4,106 miles of impaired freshwater streams and rivers within the region.

The Next Hot Spot: Louisiana

Louisiana is quickly becoming newest hotbed for wood pellet manufacturing. Two facilities were recently opened by the U.K.’s Drax Power to supply its power plant near Leeds, England, and a third Drax facility has been proposed. These facilities are expected to produce 1.35 million dry metric tons of wood pellets every year.

The state is particularly vulnerable because it contains more bottomland hardwood forests of any Southeastern state – 5 million acres – and the highest number of acres lacking protection from commercial logging at 4.1 million. This land provides critical habitat to 74 imperiled, threatened or endangered species, including the ringed map turtle, dusky gopher frog, pallid sturgeon, and Louisiana quillwort. The region is home to 4,069 miles of impaired freshwater streams and rivers.

NRDC is calling on policymakers in both Europe and the U.S. to reform policies that require sound carbon accounting, toughens sustainability standards and caps biomass levels to ensure sustainable sourcing. 

“This report shows the devastating impact of weak policies both domestically and abroad,” Hammel added. “Without proper and sensible safeguards, demand will continue to grow to the detriment of Southern ecosystems, and ultimately the air we breathe. It’s imperative that policymakers take a stand to curb the damaging effects of biomass energy.”

Additional information about biomass and the wood pellet industry can be found at http://www.nrdc.org/energy/forestsnotfuel/default.asp.

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