The United States Industrial Pellet Association has been caught red-handed trying to kill proposed reforms that would help save forests and the climate. The story has been ably covered by the Financial Times and DeSmog, but we thought we’d provide some color commentary.
The biomass and wood pellet industries destroy forests
Before we talk about how the US Industrial Pellet Association is trying to kill even the feeblest attempts by the European Commission to reform its disastrous policy on forest biomass, let’s be clear about what forest harvesting for wood pellets really looks like.
The US Southeast
For examples of forest damage by the pellet industry in the United States Southeast, see “Global Markets for Biomass Energy are Devastating U.S. Forests,” and more recently, “New satellite study confirms harmful impacts of biomass industry.” Companies manufacturing wood pellets in the US Southeast are Enviva and Drax, who have both been formally accused of misleading investors and the public about the forest and climate impacts of wood pellet manufacturing. (See petition about Enviva to US Securities and Exchange Commission; see complaint about Drax to OECD).
British Columbia, Canada
Here is an explanation of what’s at stake in the rainforests of British Columbia, where Drax owns multiple wood pellet manufacturing plants: Burning Up: The Controversial Biofuel Threatening BC’s Last Inland Rainforests
In the EU, the biomass and wood pellet industry often claims to just use “waste” wood and sawdust for fuel and pellet feedstock. But that’s misleading, too. New evidence shows that many pellet plants and biomass plants, including those owned by bioenergy giant Graanul Invest, use logs – that is, trees – for pellet feedstock and fuel: New Report Shows Biomass Industry Is Lighting Facts on Fire With Sustainability Claims
Given that the biomass and wood pellet industry depends in great part on industrial logging and forest destruction for wood, it’s not surprising they’d lobby European policymakers to weaken any proposed reform to the EU’s biomass policy. After all, the biomass and pellet industry basically wrote the largely meaningless “sustainability” criteria for biomass in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) published at the end of 2018. The empty nature of these Potemkin protections is explained in “Paper Tiger: Why the EU’s RED II biomass sustainability criteria fail forests and the climate.” They thought they had the situation under control, that business-as-usual could continue, so it must have been a bad day indeed for the tree-burning lobby to hear that some policymakers now want to add some new protections.
The reforms proposed by the European Commission in July 2021 would not actually do much to protect forests and climate (for a short overview of the proposal, see Table 1 at page 7 of “Why the EU’s plan for climate neutrality by 2050 will likely fail.”). For instance, even under the EC’s proposed reforms, pellet and biomass companies could still clearcut forests for fuel – and would still get paid renewable energy subsidies to destroy forests. EU citizens pay out around 17 billion euro per year in subsidies for all bioenergy – not just tree-burning. But just imagine if those funds supported protecting and restoring forests, instead of burning them for fuel! For an overview of what that could look like, see page 19 at “Why the EU’s plan for climate neutrality by 2050 will likely fail”.
There are a couple provisions in the EU’s July 2021 proposal that might help protect certain forests. One of the most nonsensical provisions in the RED II is that while it does not grant renewable energy subsidies when someone chops down a forest and converts it to energy crops (“agricultural biomass”), it does permit chopping down those same forests and burning the wood directly as “forest biomass.” Logging and burning forests for fuel qualifies for subsidies under the RED II as long as the land isn’t converted to growing crops (see pages 44 & 45 of Paper Tiger report for more details).
Certain EU policymakers finally recognized that this inconsistency encourages logging forests, so the EC’s proposed reforms would extend existing “no go” areas for agricultural biomass to forest biomass, as well. This wouldn’t protect all forests – only “highly biodiverse” forests and the last tiny remnants of forests that have never been logged (“primary” forests) – but it’s a start.
Naturally, however, the biomass/pellet industry and their EU policymaker pals Will. Not. Brook. Any. Restrictions on their ability to log any forests they want – they want to dominate EU policy completely, so they are seeking to kill this provision, among many others. Killing any such reforms is especially important to pellet producers Drax and Enviva. As demonstrated above, both companies rely on exploiting carbon-rich biodiverse forests of the US Southeast, and Drax just convinced their shareholders to approve purchasing Pinnacle Pellets in British Columbia, and are counting on continued access to some of Canada’s last unlogged forests, because, as a logger quoted in a recent article in The Walrus states, secondary forests aren’t mature enough, so the forest industry is still mowing down primary (i.e. previously unlogged) forests.
“I’ve submitted cutting permits for probably 5 million cubic metres of timber”—a cubic metre is roughly equivalent to the volume of a telephone pole—“and every single one has been primary forest,” says the forester, who didn’t want his name used because he didn’t have permission from his employer to speak to the press. BC’s secondary forests are generally less than sixty years old, he says, and have not yet matured enough to make logging on a large scale financially viable.
Drax, and the US IPA as a whole, would probably see any limitation on obtaining biomass from primary and biodiverse forests as an existential threat. So would the Swedish and Finnish biomass industries – which are also still logging primary forests.
We’ve dug into the US IPA proposed amendments, and written up a summary of what they’re asking for – and what it would mean. For the interested reader, there’s much more at stake than just what’s summarized here.