The Amazon rain forest is on fire, and millions are aghast. Yet, so are the trees in North Carolina. We just can’t see the flames because they aren’t on television.
Every day, North Carolina trees are being cut by the thousands, squeezed and baked into pellets, trucked to ports, dispatched across the Atlantic in container ships, and burned in power plants in the United Kingdom.
Few people know this, because this environmental travesty occurs in poor, rural areas of color, where people are already beset by low health outcomes and high unemployment. And for what? So that British utilities can call our trees their “renewable biomass” and therefore better than burning coal. Apparently, burning our trees and leaving us a denuded landscape meets a European Union standard for carbon reduction.
The N.C. Division of Air Quality is right now considering yet another expansion for this industry. Enviva Biomass, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets, wants to expand its plant in tiny Garysburg — just as it has already expanded in Ahoskie, Hamlet and Faison. To get an idea of these locations, last month’s public hearing was in Northampton High School, where nearly 64% of all children are considered economically disadvantaged and 45% are chronically absent.
Enviva put forward all the requisite support, including its vice president for environmental affairs, director of sustainability policy, sustainability foresters, supporters from forestry and loggers’ associations, and a woman representing Enviva’s “community partnership.”
The Enviva supporters made all the right legal and marketing claims: More trees are planted in North Carolina than are cut down; the Enviva plant supports scholarships, apprenticeships, school supply drives, 300 “direct and indirect jobs”; and the company’s “significant capital investment” toward the proposed air quality permit modification seemed to meet what the law requires. So why not let the Enviva plant in Garysburg spew out 46% more wood pellets than it did before? (That’s 781,000 tons of wood pellets each year, not counting the three other North Carolina Enviva operations.)
Plenty of reasons. Most of those newly planted trees come in the form of “pine plantations,” composed of rows upon rows of artificially fertilized, croplike trees, where the undergrowth is controlled just like weeds on a tobacco farm, and where biodiversity does not exist.
“The pine forests are monocultures — they’re just one kind of tree,” said J.C. Woodley, a retired environmental biologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who was raised in Northampton County. “They don’t store carbon in the manner that an old-growth forest does.”
Of course, an old-growth forest would take 30 to 40 years to regenerate, and environmentalists say Enviva wants to cut whole trees again faster than that. They also report that Enviva is cutting bottomland and coastal forests with wetland habitat, even though Enviva says it does not source wood from sensitive forests. But really, who would know? Private landowners have significant rights to do what they want with their land, even though North Carolina needs the forests to help protect us from unprecedented storms that left sizeable areas of the state under water just last year.
The other North Carolina Enviva plants are also in distressed rural counties where people struggle with poor health, low rates of insurance and not enough doctors. Are these the places where a biomass company was likely to meet strong community opposition?
No, Woodley said. People’s “issues are bigger to them than this, like keeping the electricity on.” The jobs Enviva brings help to do this. Yet, the taxpayers of this poor county and the rest of the state are helping to pay for those jobs. Enviva has received $6 million in state and local subsidies — something Republican legislators defend as necessary help to poor, rural counties. Yet, when wind power began to do the same in poor rural counties in eastern North Carolina their response was a moratorium. How quickly they forget that when the Amazon wind farm opened in 2017, it became the largest taxpayer in both Pasquotank and Perquimans counties on the very day it opened. Enviva’s EU buyers are also subsidizing this brown — not green — industry. Companies such as Drax Power in the U.K. and Ørsted in Denmark receive lucrative subsidies to burn biomass instead of coal.
Rick Savage, of the Carolina Wetlands Association, said he believes that Enviva officials know this heavily subsidized business isn’t going to last, given the environmental absurdity of burning trees to produce electricity. This is why he thinks Enviva is expanding operations as quickly as it can, to chop up as many trees as it can, right now. To wood pellet supporters, “trees are just another type of fossil fuel,” he said, adding that while we need wood products for many things, “we just don’t need it for wood pellets.”
The industry has other negative side effects, which state regulators were reminded of last month.
“You don’t live here, so therefore you don’t have to be bothered with the noise. You don’t have to be bothered with the trucks” that grind their way to and from the Enviva plant seven days a week at all hours carrying logs or pellets, said Belinda Joyner, who leads the Concerned Citizens of Northampton County group. Referring to Enviva’s yearly school supply drive, Joyner added, “You’re going to kill us at the same time ... you’re giving our children a book bag.”
But here’s the bigger picture, the thing that astounds my friends who had no idea this “sustainability” perversion is going on: The only reason cutting our forests meets the EU standard for greenhouse gas emissions is because emissions are measured only at those power plants. What never gets added to that equation are the effects of the carbon storage that is lost when the trees are cut down, or the carbon that is emitted by the massive — and hot — pellet plants, the carbon spewed from smog-emitting logging and pellet trucks, or the emissions from container ships that transport North Carolina trees across the Atlantic to U.K. power plants. Even worse: New studies are finding that burning wood pellets for fuel releases as much as, or even more, carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal.
“The thing that’s disheartening to me is the scam,” Woodley added. “We’re emitting and they’re (U.K. power plants) at zero emissions, according to their calculations.”
Biomass supporters will respond to this piece and PR every claim. But they cannot deny the big picture: In today’s climate crisis, it is nothing but absurd that in Europe, our trees are being burned to power homes and businesses. If you’re aghast at the burning of the rain forest, you need to be equally horrified by this “green” sham.