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Report Challenges Environmental Friendliness Of U.S. Pellet Industry


Electric power plants across Europe are using fuel generated from wood pellets, a so-called biomass fuel that comes from forests of oak and poplar trees here in the U.S. It's part of an effort by the European Union to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But a new report looks at the deforestation that results from the pellet industry, and it challenges the notion that wood pellets are any more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels like coal. Joby Warrick is the national reporter who covers the environment for The Washington Post. He's written about this development and joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

JOBY WARRICK: It's a pleasure.

CORNISH: So first give us a sense of the scale of the U.S. wood pellet industry. I mean, how big are we talking about, and how much is Europe buying from us?

WARRICK: It is big, and it's also very new. Just a few years ago - 10 years ago - you couldn't find any of these pellet mills, these places where pellets are made. Now there's at least two dozen of them, mostly in the Southeast, a few elsewhere in the country. And they are sending millions of tons of these wood pellets to Europe as fast as they can make them. There are so many of these that there are now two ports in the Southeast that are dedicated just to sending wood pellets to the Europeans.

CORNISH: I was under the impression that wood pellets were created from, like, waste and the extras, but it sounds like that's not the case.

WARRICK: It's not always the case. And you can make wood pellets out of extras, and you can make them out of pine trees that are raised in plantations. You can make them from sawdust - all kinds of things like that. In this particular case, there's such demand that some companies are actually cutting down hardwood trees, particularly in the Southeast, in places like Eastern North Carolina, Eastern Virginia, and using these whole trees to make wood pellets, and that's where it becomes controversial.

CORNISH: Talk more about the controversy and this new report. What are the findings that indicate that wood pellets are not necessarily as environmentally sound as it's been described to all of us?

WARRICK: Well, biomass - just to explain a little bit - is any kind of vegetative matter, biological matter, that's used to make energy. The thing is about biomass is you can release carbon dioxide when you burn it, but eventually you can absorb carbon dioxide back because you grow new crops and they use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The problem is time scales. If you're cutting down a tree to use it for fuel, it's going to take a very long time to re-grow that tree. It can be decades. And so this study is highlighting the fact that for the short-term or medium-term, we're not going to get that carbon back. It's actually going to be released in the atmosphere even to a greater extent in some cases then if you were burning coal to start with.

CORNISH: What's the argument from the wood pellet companies?

WARRICK: The wood pellet company looks at this as a long-term proposition, and the Europeans do too. So yes, it's, you know, you burn wood, it releases carbon dioxide. But eventually, all these trees that we're planting are going to absorb that carbon dioxide right back. They're acknowledging there's a gap, you know, many years before you recoup all that carbon dioxide, but they think in the long term it's environmentally sound and it's certainly better than fossil fuels.

CORNISH: We talked about the long-term, but what about the short-term in deforestation? I mean, what concerns are being expressed here in the U.S.?

WARRICK: There's a whole separate issue that has to do with the impact on forests themselves, and it really has to do with where the logging is going on. In East North Carolina, where I was looking around, a lot of the logging is taking place in wetlands and on bottom lands, along rivers - in places that are fairly environmentally sensitive anyway, and they do impact species that live there, and these happen to be very productive habitats for wildlife. Most land in the Southeast is privately owned. About 90 percent of the forested land in the states of the South are in private hands and there aren't many regulations that dictate certain land uses for forest or dictate replanting at a certain rate. So it's really between the logging company and the landowners how they're going to reforest and replant and what kinds of rules they're going to abide by.

CORNISH: The EU had adopted the policy of favoring biomass fuels essentially in order to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Is this undermining that effort?

WARRICK: It's a tricky problem for the Europeans and this is particularly true for the British, and they happen to be very big customers of wood pellets. There's a mandate in many of these countries to reduce the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, and these wood pellets have become a very good option for them because they can burn these wood pellets right in their power plants. And there aren't many other good options. You can put in solar power, you can put in wind power, but those are very slow-growing industries and in the meantime there's a big demand for electricity that has to be filled.

CORNISH: Joby Warrick - he's a reporter for The Washington Post. He wrote about Europe's growing demand for America's wood pellets.

WARRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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