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Australia says some biomass can't count as renewable; Europe debates changes

 A factory producing wood pellets
David Boraks
North Carolina is a major exporter of wood pellets to Europe. The largest supplier, Enviva, operates four plants in the state, including this one in Hamlet, in Richmond County.

Australia has decided that electricity generated by burning wood from primary forests can no longer be considered renewable energy. The December order by the government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reverses the pro-wood policy of his predecessor — and adds to questions about the future of wood pellet production across the South and the region's forests.

The announcement was a win for global activists who say burning wood for energy is a threat to forests and is not the zero-carbon clean energy that advocates claim. The move is symbolic: Since 2015 when former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said "native forest biomass" could be counted as renewable, there has been little interest in the idea, according to climate and energy minister Chris Bowen.

Opponents also have their eyes on Europe, where wood pellet use is large and growing. Wood pellet opponents and pellet makers and users are lobbying European officials over proposed policy changes that could alter the viability, or at least the economics, of the industry here in the U.S.

The U.S. wood pellet industry has grown quickly since 2009, when European policymakers adopted rules that declared wood a "zero-carbon" fuel for electricity generation — the theory being that since trees can be regrown, capturing carbon from the atmosphere, wood pellets should count as renewable energy. That and massive government subsidies have encouraged power plants to begin burning wood pellets instead of coal. That's despite the fact that studies show wood can burn dirtier than coal.

Logging, wood pellet plants and shipping operations have spread across the Southeast, from Virginia to Louisiana. North Carolina has four plants and a major port facility at Wilmington, all operated by Maryland-based Enviva.

In 2008, the U.S. exported just 300,000 metric tons of wood pellets. Last year, exports grew 21% to almost 9 million metric tons, worth $1.54 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s a 30-fold increase in tonnage exported over the past 15 years. Europe, and England in particular, are the biggest destination for wood pellets produced in the U.S. Southeast.

A map
(Image: Southern Environmental Law Center)
More than two dozen wood pellet plans operate in the Southeast and more are proposed.

European tug-of-war

In recent years, environmentalists and scientists have urged a rethinking of Europe's rules and subsidies.

Last summer, the European Parliament approved proposed revisions to the European Union's renewable energy rules that would limit the use of biomass — primarily wood and stumps from older, more biodiverse forests. That's good news, said Derb Carter, a Chapel Hill-based lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

"The reason I'm optimistic is that serious reform of what we consider to be very flawed policies, that have led to the expansive use of biomass — a lot of it exported from the United States, particularly the southern U.S. — has gotten farther than it ever has," Carter said.

However, before it can become law the proposal has to go through a three-way negotiation between the parliament and the EU's two other main governmental arms, the European Council and the European Commission. And there it faces tough headwinds, said Mary Booth, director of the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Policy Integrity.

"The council carries disproportionate weight. So they're trying to gut all the things that the parliament proposed," Booth said. "The parliament actually proposed some moderate reforms, and the council is about to remove them. So we've been working on this for like, four years, and we're about to lose everything."

European scientists have urged the EU to reverse its pro-wood pellet policies, which include subsidies to power plants that switch from coal to wood. That includes a 2021 letter signed by more than 500 scientists European, American and Asian leaders.

Despite opposition, the commission's own proposal "didn't really make any meaningful effort to reduce the actual amount of forest biomass burned," Booth said.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has circulated a new letter to top EU officials calling for strengthening the rules to protect southeastern U.S. forests. And another group of 115 non-governmental organizations from the U.S. and Canada recently did the same. They include 18 groups from the Carolinas, including Carolina Wetlands Association, Coastal Plain Conservation Group, Concerned Citizens of Richmond County, Southern Forests Conservation Coalition and the Spruill Farm Conservation Project in Washington County.

Carter said it could be an uphill battle. Many European countries are relying on wood pellets — with their clean energy designation — to meet their carbon targets. "Unwinding that is a challenge," he said.

Pellet industry says rules are working

The U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, which represents pellet makers, is watching the European negotiations, too. In a statement Wednesday, the organization said wood is essential to meet EU climate goals and safeguards are working.

"All models, particularly the European Commission’s own impact assessment for the amendment of the Renewable Energy Directive, are clear that bioenergy use must increase significantly to meet EU climate targets. Arbitrary restrictions on primary woody biomass will push these goals farther out of reach, while providing no additional environmental benefits," the statement said.

That 2021 impact assessmentfor the EU says, among other things, that biomass is an important part of Europe's long-term plans to fight global warming.

"A growing body of scientific literature confirms that existing regulations are working as intended in the U.S. Southeast to preserve forest carbon stocks, and ensure biomass is responsibly sourced to provide a positive impact for the climate and environment. We agree with the views expressed in a recent joint paper by 10 member states that underlines the need for EU institutions to find a compromise that enables bioenergy to play its vital role as a reliable, secure and renewable energy source."

The association points to several peer-reviewed studies since 2017 that it says refute environmentalists' claims about the industry's effects on southeastern forests.


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Corrected: February 13, 2023 at 4:27 PM EST
This article and headline have been corrected to clarify that Australia's recent action referred only to native forests and not to the wood pellet industry more broadly. We've also updated the story to include a link to a 2021 letter from scientists opposed to wood biomass for energy and to peer-reviewed research that supports the wood pellet industry.

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.