WILMINGTON –– Twin bulbous white domes, each 170 feet tall, serve as distinctive landmarks on the city’s industrial skyline framing the east bank of the Cape Fear River.
Each equipped to store up to 45,000 metric tons of wood pellets, they first arose in 2016 as Enviva (NYSE:EVA) firmed up its position in North Carolina, embarking on a growth trend detractors say is unruly and unsustainable.
The Port of Wilmington is one of six deep-water export stations where the world’s largest wood pellet producer has established its roots. Locally, the port outpost employs 34 people; statewide, Enviva’s operations support 1,800 jobs, according to company estimates.
Sourcing timber from across the southeast, harvested wood is processed at one of Enviva’s nine manufacturing plants, four of which are in N.C. –– Faison, Garysburg, Hamlet, and Ahoskie.
Bulk materials are ground, desaturated and pelletized at the plants before arriving at the edge of the Cape Fear River by rail or truck. The Tic-Tac-sized pellets are then loaded onto a 700-foot conveyor system and dumped into the domes for storage before being hauled across the ocean to destinations like Japan, Germany, and the U.K.
The Wilmington port handled 1.2 million tons of pellets last year, according to its latest air quality inspection report, roughly one-fourth of the total amount Enviva produced company-wide. Revenue was up 70% in Q2, compared to the same quarter last year, prompted by increased demand. Next year, the company projects doubling its 2021 profits to roughly $106 million.
Across the state, Enviva estimates its total economic impact each year is close to $1 billion.
The industry’s growing prominence fiercely divides climate-conscious stakeholders who may otherwise find themselves on the same side of the debate.
Propped up by generous European subsidies, the company harvests what it describes as low-value wood across the southeast U.S. and ships its product overseas to be burned as a power source. The idea is to offset fossil fuels –– a finite, carbon-intensive source of energy that will take eons to replace. National and international agencies have repeatedly called upon alternatives –– including biomass –– to strengthen their market presence to combat climate change.
With tree products (biomass, as the industry calls it), society can tap into a theoretically renewable resource on a comparatively realistic timeline while tapering off on its untenable reliance on fossil fuels.
The basics quickly get complicated. Enviva’s status as a potentially sustainable alternative to fossil fuels relies on trees being replanted. It can take decades to replenish the carbon dioxide-absorbing stock, which is dependent on an untold number of natural factors. In its contracts with logging companies, Enviva says it won’t do business with landowners who don’t intend to reforest their logged land. This requirement, paired with the climbing strength of the timber industry, serves as an incentive to increase, rather than decrease, the number of trees in the southeast, the company asserts.
“The forested landscape, for every one ton of wood that is harvested from the forest, two tons are growing back. And that’s not a coincidence. That is a direct result of the economic benefits that the combined forest products industry provide to forests,” said Kim Cesafsky, Enviva’s director of sustainability.
Enviva objects to the “carbon debt” argument put forth by scientists and environmental advocates –– “it’s not how the atmosphere sees emissions,” Cesafsky said.
The carbon debt argument pokes holes in the company’s claims of lifecycle carbon neutrality at the stack by asserting that not all trees should be treated the same; regrowth varies, and truly offsetting carbon emissions through the use of biomass takes a varying amount of years, depending on the age and species harvested.
Cesafsky favors the landscape approach, which leans on the fact that the forests Enviva sources from “are growing twice as fast as they’re being harvested.” Market forces are supporting this regrowth, she explained.
“If there was no economic stream for a landowner to keep their property in trees, then they would not choose to do so,” Cesafsky said. “So what we’ve seen over the years in the South, is that as demand for wood has grown … [from the 1950s through to present day, the amount of forest inventory, the amount of wood in the southern forests, has doubled.”
Some researchers debunk this philosophy –– that trees harvested from a region increasing in its forested land equates to carbon neutrality –– as nonsensical.
“It is a half-baked idea at best and it’s really not even half-baked,” said Andy Wood, director of the Coastal Plain Conservation Group. “This is just another example of natural resource exploitation for very short-term profit.”
Wood recently led a water-bound protest cruise of sorts targeting Enviva’s practices, sponsored by the Southern Forests Conservation Coalition, timed around the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Before boarding the double-decker Henrietta riverboat docked in downtown Wilmington, participants passed by a collection of homemade cardboard signs lining the Riverwalk; one quoted the Lorax, another read “BIG BAD BIOMASS.”
Handheld “STOP ENVIVA” signs were available to participants, as were packets detailing the company’s latest expansionary trends and clear-cutting practices.
Aboard the cruise, the captain circled in front of Enviva’s gargantuan domes and War of the Worlds-esque conveyor belts, giving passengers a container ship’s view of the company’s export system.
“[T]he pellets are offloaded from the domes into the ship, which then is going to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, burning roughly one gallon of bunker fuel for 10 linear feet of distance traveled –– bunker fuel being the most polluting fossil fuel we have,” Wood narrated.
“Basically, what you’re looking at is a very expensive piece of the wood pellet infrastructure. And that’s really what we’re up against, is what’s already built.”
A divisive European accounting framework ignores forgone carbon sequestration from harvested trees, that if left alone, would continue to grow and absorb carbon at arguably even greater rates. Derb Carter, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, pointed out older trees continue to sequester more CO2 until they die.
“[T]hey’ve locked in all of these contracts and these subsidies … and all of that money could be going to wind and solar,” Carter said. “If we cut off the demand for this, then we cut off the government subsidy. It will stop as soon as it started. Because it makes no economic sense. It makes no climate-policy sense. It’s destroying forests here.”
The European Union declared biomass a renewable energy source in 2009, calling on its member states to mobilize the industry. The distinction amped up the European appetite for wood pellets through various subsidy programs backed by taxpayers. For EU member states, increasing the reliance on biomass means inching closer to the union’s ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and abiding by requirements to reduce emissions by at least 80%. This is possible because the EU states can claim to add no CO2 emissions through biomass on paper by filling power plants with a different fuel source necessitating next-to-no major infrastructure overhaul.
“It’s all counted as zero,” Carter explained. “We’re losing the carbon storage that we have here in the forest, in the trees as they naturally exist. We’re losing the foregone carbon storage if the trees were actually allowed to grow.”
A so-called biomass loophole set forth in the original declaration has allowed the industry to be treated as carbon neutral. Scientists have decried what many observe to be a flawed accounting, whereby efforts stateside to harvest and create the pellets aren’t considered in the offshore emissions equation. Intended to avoid global double-counting, the loophole set an irreversible standard that accelerates carbon emissions, rather than curbs them, these proponents argue.
“Part of the political challenge, at the higher level, is you have some political leadership in Congress and elsewhere, like from wood-producing states, that are trying to find a way to find more markets for wood,” Carter said. “My view is kind of in the standoff between the scientists saying, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ And the political types that are more open to having a national policy that would allow some significant use of biomass.”
In February, more than 500 scientists and economists issued a letter to President Joe Biden, EU leaders, and others, urging them to abandon their stake in the biomass industry. They described the practice as misguided, surrendering a vital carbon-absorbing lot in the process. “[R]egrowth takes time the world does not have to solve climate change,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, the forestry industry and many international government agencies firmly support sustainable biomass production. In context, the biomass industry makes up just a fraction of the total clear-cutting forestry activities nationwide.
Each year, 2.5% of the southeast’s forests are harvested for a variety of uses. Of this harvest, just 3% is used to produce wood pellets; paper and sawmill are the leading drivers of wood consumption.
“It’s been my observation that a lot of the activists –– who, should I mention do not have forestry training –– are of the mindset that the best thing that you can do to a forest is not touch it,” Cesafsky said, adding that well-managed forests require oversight. “[T]here’s a misperception that the forest today that we see or even the forests that colonial settlers came upon when we — when white people first came to North America, were a product of leaving the forest alone. And that’s not the case.”
Path to net-zero emissions
Biomass proponents don’t present it as the answer to reducing carbon emissions; instead, it’s endorsed as one of many in a suite of non-fossil alternatives. Unlike solar, wind, or hydroelectric energy (reliant on natural phenomena that can occasionally wane) biomass boasts an ability to fill in gaps and a lower-energy consuming storage ability. However, its production (and combustion) emits more carbon dioxide than its clean energy counterparts.
Each stop along the supply chain way introduces carbon dioxide: at harvest, cut trees release CO2 (so do decaying trees left unused, Enviva points out); CO2 is released at the plant when the material becomes pelletized (the most carbon-intensive step), on the road or rail trip to the port, across the ocean, and finally, at the offshore stack.
Compared to coal, the company achieves 80% net carbon savings –– not truly carbon neutral when accounting for the entire process. This is at least a step away from nonrenewable coal, biomass proponents argue, even considering wood-burning can release more carbon than coal at the stack.
Enviva recently pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030, with the goal of sourcing at least 50% its electricity at its manufacturing plants from renewable energy sources by 2025.
Governor Roy Cooper signed a clean energy bill into law last week, which requires 70% carbon emissions reductions from public utilities by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. The legislation arose out of policy recommendations cemented in the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean Energy Plan in 2019, helmed by current EPA administrator Michael Regan.
Despite Enviva’s strong presence in N.C., the state’s plan issued a rebuke of the wood pellet industry.
“Currently, the wood pellet industry does not contribute to NC’s energy generation portfolio and does not advance NC’s clean energy economy,” the plan states.
Within a week of releasing the plan, DEQ greenlit Enviva’s request to expand its Sampson County facility, a plant with a history of environmental fines for air quality violations; several fires have broken out at the company’s facilities statewide in recent years.
Anti-biomass advocates warn of the industry’s noise and air pollution, fire hazard, and disruptions a plant can bring a community.
Enviva in N.C.
Enviva lost face with many local clean energy supporters almost as soon as they arrived. Carter, the Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney, remembered when the company’s first pellet mill in the U.S. opened in 2011 in Ahoskie, N.C.
“I swung through Ahoskie and there were dozens of trucks carrying bottomland hardwood logs into the biggest log pile I’d really ever seen,” Carter said. “Now 76% of its sourcing is whole, live trees. It’s not sawdust, residuals, or other materials –– it’s cutting trees.”
In a statement, an Enviva spokesperson said Ahoskie doesn’t have a wood chipper necessary to process round wood; however, the facility’s latest inspection report references a wood chipper being on site, though it notes it is no longer in use.
“All of this began with a deception,” Carter said.
Wood later added he’d observed images of Enviva’s harvests of bottomland wetland trees. “How did we know they were wetland? They were all buttressed. They were buttressed trunks. These weren’t plantation-grown pines. These were wetland trees. So we know what’s going on.”
He somewhat jokingly implored his captive waterborne audience to join him in a class-action lawsuit to hold the company accountable for alleged fraud. “[W]e could start with everybody on this boat,” he said cheekily.
In its marketing materials, the company leans on its sourcing of trimmings, gnarled wood, unwanted logs –– stuff other manufacturers have no use for. Putting otherwise wasted natural resources to use is a noncontroversial, even alluring mantra. Perhaps overselling the hand-me-down element of its sourcing model, the company’s actual practices have spurred news and activist investigations. These investigations produced scenes of a bounty of trunks, stacked in layers resembling tiki thatch in aerial shots, and accounts of truck after truck delivering sturdy, unblemished-looking wood to plants.
Cesafsky said the emphasis on Enviva’s “whole log” sourcing is misleading: “It’s a pretty much meaningless term.” What matters in purchasing decisions is the quality of wood, not its size, a spokesperson explained. “To an untrained or uneducated eye one might mistake low-value wood for high-value lumber or whole trees,” the spokesperson explained in an email.
Low-value wood Enviva uses is sold at typically one-fourth of the price as high-value wood sought by sawmills, Cesafsky explained. “[O]ur suppliers would not sell us the higher-grade wood that they could get four or five, sometimes nine times the price for –– that just wouldn’t make economic sense; they would be out of business.”
Claims of high-value harvesting activities and investigative imagery are deceitful, she said. “This is probably the biggest misconception that we’ve run across and I think, what it is, is some of some of the campaigners and our detractors attempt to make the argument that forests are being managed for the production of bioenergy,” she said.
Though the forest products industry as a whole is credited with doubling the southeast’s forest inventory, Cesafsky asserts Enviva isn’t the primary motivator prompting landowners to log their land: “We don’t drive the harvest.”
On average, Enviva takes about 30% of any given harvest’s material, KIM estimated –– meaning, they’re most often a secondary financial motivator for landowners. However, the company’s Track & Trace system –– a public accounting of each tract harvested the company launched in 2017 –– shows many harvests around the Wilmington region went entirely or overwhelmingly to Enviva.
Cesafsky explains these harvests, while in the minority, are prompted by entire tracts of low-value wood.
Especially in the Wilmington region, landowners who have often left heirloom tracts go unmanaged find themselves stuck with “dog hair” pines, she explained. “You know, it’s a bunch of small, kind of cruddy, low-grade twisted trees, and there’s really nothing you can do to manage it correctly or bring it back into proper good silvicultural management, other than kind of pressing the restart button.”
A majority of working forests in the South are owned by private landowners who have less than 30 acres. The land acts as a living retirement account, whereby families cash out maybe twice in a lifetime, requiring investments in the property over the years to more successfully cultivate a valuable harvest.
Conservationist Wood thinks public subsidies should be targeted to these landowners to encourage them to keep their forests growing.
“The landowners who own those trees are paying taxes. And so they’re actually paying for a public trust service that benefits all of us,” Wood said, before asking rhetorically: Why don’t governments skim a portion of the $20 billion in subsidies given each year to the fossil fuel industry, and instead share some of that to incentivize landowners to keep growing carbon-absorbing trees?
Aboard the Henrietta, participants signed postcards addressed to Gov. Cooper that warn of Enviva’s environmental injustice, stating the industry is twice as likely to build a plant in Black or low-income neighborhoods. “It’s cheaper to expose vulnerable communities to their noise, dust, odors, and air pollution,” the postcard states.
Each of Enviva’s plants in N.C. is located in census tracts with a higher concentration of Black and low-income residents compared to the rest of the state. Manufacturing pellets releases ambient fine particular matter, a hazardous air pollutant researchers detailed earlier this year disproportionately and systemically exposed to people of color across the U.S.
Anita Cunningham, program director of the Robeson County Cooperative for Sustainable Development, told river-cruise riders about the strain the plants have on local communities:
“[W]hen they talk about not being able to go out into their yard because of the dust particulates that’s caused from the wood pellets that they’re producing, the dust on their homes, on their cars, the noise pollution, the trucks that come with the logs, all night, all day,” she said. “It’s because of the wood pellet industry that these burdens are being placed in these communities.”
In a lengthy statement, Enviva detailed its engagement with the communities in which it works, citing various partnerships and initiatives to improve residents’ quality of life.
“We always take any complaints seriously, investigate and work to resolve and mitigate them promptly,” a spokesperson emailed. Air quality surrounding Enviva’s facilities in the Carolinas is better than national standards, according to the spokesperson, illustrating that neither ambient fine particulate matter “nor the fully controlled emissions from these facilities, present any public health risk to the communities where our plants are located.”
Same values, opposing ideas
Enviva and other economic interests contribute to striping the region of its biodiversity, Wood warned.
“There is no way that we’re going to burn trees for 30 years. We don’t have enough trees to do that,” he said. “We’re going to screw the planet beyond repair.”
The company differentiates between forested land and what it calls “high conservation value land,” where it says it won’t harvest from. It also boasts a multi-million dollar conservation fund, recently used last month to purchase about 1,000 acres of riverfront property in Brunswick County, now dedicated to permanent preservation. One percent of its harvests are taken from bottomland hardwood forests, according to its Track & Trace reporting.
“[W]e do believe that there are special places that need to be set aside, and remain that way,” Cesafsky said. “We also believed that forests should stay as forests. It’s just the way that you believe that that will be achieved. Ours is realistic. We’re pragmatic. This is who owns the land and this is how people work the land.”
As with other climate-conscious stakeholders, there isn’t time to waste, Enviva acknowledges; that’s precisely why the company has aggressively pursued what it sees as a renewable alternative.
“We definitely have the same values, right? We have the same view on climate change. I think, like everything, there’s our view, and there’s theirs,” Cesafsky said. “I would argue that we are being more proactive in doing something about climate mitigation. And we have a different view on the role of working forests, and how they contribute, and how these markets contribute to meeting that same mutual goal.”
Update: This article has been corrected to remove a reference to a planned plant in Lumberton that is unaffiliated with Enviva. It also includes additional comment from Enviva.
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