Thursday, October 22, 2015

Foreign demand for wood pellets damaging forests, habitats in Southeast, says environmental report

Increasing foreign demand for fuel made from American trees harvested in the Southeastern U.S. is a largely unregulated business and is threatening critical habitats and forests, says a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group. Wood pellet exports from the U.S. increased from 1.6 million tons in 2012 to nearly 5 million in 2014 and are expected to reach 5.7 million tons this year.

"Wood pellet manufacturing in the Southeast is expected to reach as high as 70 million metric tons by 2020," states the study. "Wood pellet manufacturers and their major customers claim that pellets from these mills are composed entirely of sawdust and other mill residues, tree trimmings and diseased or 'problem' trees not suitable as timber. However, studies have concluded that logging residuals alone are unlikely to meet biomass fuel market demand and that healthy, whole trees (e.g., pulpwood) will be needed. Our research, along with the research of other organizations, shows that the harvest of whole trees is already taking place—and that these trees are coming not only from plantations."

Researchers said "80 percent of forests in the South are privately owned, leaving them not fully protected," Brittany Patterson reports for ClimateWire. "The report pinpoints three 'hotspots' especially at risk: the Virginia-North Carolina border, southeastern Georgia and the Alabama-Mississippi border . . . The report suggests Louisiana could be developing into a high-risk area."

Wood pellet manufacturers challenged the report's numbers, Patterson writes. "Kent Jenkins, vice president of communications for Enviva, said the vast majority of wood used by the company's production plants in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina comes from upland forests and mixed stands." A Drax spokesperson said in an email: "We source from commercially owned forests in the U.S. where wood grown has consistently exceeded the harvest for each of the last 50 years and there is no evidence of deforestation."

Companies have also said the report's projected growth of the industry are too high, Patterson writes. Robert Farris, director of the Georgia Forestry Commission and chairman of the Southern Group of State Foresters, told Patterson, "A more reasonable projection puts it around 25 million tons of wood pellets in the future. Pellets represent only 1 to 2 percent of total forest product market share." (Read more)

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