ROCKINGHAM — The facts are not with Enviva, according to more than 100 scientists from North Carolina and across the world who signed a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper arguing that the wood pellet processing industry is damaging to the environment.
“We are writing in our individual capacities to urge you to integrate forest conservation and restoration into your climate action plan and to swiftly address the threat that the wood pellet industry poses to meeting climate mitigation goals,” the letter reads.
Enviva Biomass is the world’s largest wood pellet producer with six plants in the southeastern United States, including three in North Carolina and one in Virginia near the states’ border. The Richmond County plant will be located across from the CSX rail yard on N.C. 177 and is expected to be completed by the end of next year.
The company uses leftover wood from other industries in the areas surrounding its plants, processes it into pellets and ships it off to Europe by way of Wilmington. The letter says the subsidies offered in Europe, the main incentive behind Enviva’s business model, are driven by “misguided energy policies” and are based on “the false assumption that burning trees for electricity will lower carbon emissions.”
“Further, claims of carbon neutrality or carbon benefits do not endure on a meaningful time frame,” the letter continues. “Removing the carbon dioxide emitted from burning trees for electricity requires waiting decades to a century for trees to regrow. Not only are those offsets not verifiable nor enforceable, we cannot afford to wait that long: to stave off the worst effects of climate change, it is imperative that we reduce emissions and increase our forest carbon sinks now.”
Carbon sinks are organic materials such as plants and trees that absorb carbon dioxide.
In an op-ed published in the Charlotte Observer on Tuesday, two Duke scientists who signed the letter said the energy used to transport the wood pellets to Europe would outweigh energy it would produce.
William Schlesinger, Ph.D., a former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and Norman Christensen, Ph.D., professor emeritus and founding dean of the Nicholas School, wrote, “…it doesn’t make sense that forests in North Carolina are being cut down, chopped into pellets, and shipped overseas to be burned in power stations in Europe — ironically, in the name of renewable energy.”
Enviva maintains that its practices do not contribute to deforestation.
“The use of sustainable, low-grade wood fiber for energy brings enormous benefits, including reduced carbon, increased forests and more jobs for North Carolina, as numerous reports have demonstrated,” the company said in response to the letter. “Enviva is a leader in sustainable practices and in maintaining the health of growing forests.
According to Enviva, a study by Duke University and North Carolina State University “found that increasing demand for wood pellets has increased U.S. forested areas and investments in U.S. forestry.”
Enviva has received forest sustainability certification from several major organizations, according to the company website.
The letter urges Cooper to “take prompt action to protect Southeastern forests and reconsider the policies —including sustainability criteria, air quality and pollution controls, incentives and subsidies — that facilitate the growth of this industry.”
The Richmond County Board of Commissioners has been unanimous in its belief in the benefits that Enviva will bring to the county. The new plant represents a $100 million investment in Richmond County and will create as many as 80 jobs, according to county officials.
Curtis Richardson, Ph.D., a professor of resource ecology and the director of the Duke Wetland Center, considers the benefits Enviva will bring to the state “short term” but acknowledged that choosing between local benefit and global damage is tough.
“The short-term gain is very hard to argue against — those are real and felt in the community, but as an ecologist I look at the long term,” Richardson said. “I can’t argue that the people that are getting jobs is a negative, it’s about whether it is sustainable. The realities are what they are: short-term gain for possibly a long-term loss.”
Richardson said he hopes that the state can force Enviva to find a better “balance” in its practices.
Jamie Kritzer, communications director for the North Carolina Department for Environmental Quality, said Friday that the department is reviewing the content of the letter before issuing a statement.
A call to Cooper’s office was not returned by press time.
In September, Cooper entered North Carolina into the U.S. Climate Alliance with 14 other states which agreed to continue to pursue the goals outlined in the Paris climate accord after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674.