Biomass Boom

In the sandhill forests of west Georgia, long-leaf pines shade fields of bermuda grass flecked with blue lupines and chickasaw plums. It's a beautiful spot, an epicenter of biodiversity. Will the push for wood bioenergy change it?

Blackwater creeks run over sandy white ground, rare birds like Bachman’s sparrow flit through the branches, and even rarer gopher frogs pop out of burrows to ambush insects crawling by. The sandhills are also important in another way. Like many regions of the southern U.S., they have become an international source for wood that is being burned to make electricity. The question: Can we balance the economic potential of renewable energy from southern forests with critical ecosystem services?

For many, this question is a bellwether of sorts. The region is home to more than 90 percent of the country’s bird species, and its coastal cypress swamps are crucial to migratory songbirds. The South is also host to hundreds of species of mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians, which Southern forests shelter while protecting watersheds and soaking up carbon. They’re also providing energy to homes and cities thousands of miles away. Nearly 20 mills from Florida to Virginia are turning woody biomass into pellets for burning in utility plants, and at least seven more are under construction.

Burning wood for energy has raised concerns beyond anything seen with more traditional forest industries such as timber and paper – larger, even, than the food vs. fuel controversy plaguing corn and sorghum crops for bioenergy. “Out of all of the issues surrounding bioenergy, this is one of the most controversial,” says Jody Endres, assistant professor of environmental, natural resources and energy law at the University of Illinois. “There’s definitely the potential for environmental damage.”

Southern forests and bioenergy: Threat or promise?

Unlike western forests, which are largely public lands, nearly 90 percent of the forests of the South are privately owned by individuals, families, and corporations.

Forests on federal land are protected by an umbrella of laws. For example, the Renewable Fuel Standard, established by the Environmental Protection Agency, does not consider woody biomass from federal land an eligible renewable source for biofuels. But some of those restrictions stop at the federal boundary line. “There are very few regulations on privately owned forests,” says David Carr, general counsel for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “You can’t tell land owners what to do with their trees.”

The U.S. South – known as the “wood basket of the world” – has long been a world-leading producer of timber and wood products. According to the findings of the Southern Forest Futures Project, a report published in 2013, roughly 110 million green tons of southern wood are now harvested for energy production each year. In 2012, 1.7 million tons of southern wood went to utility companies in Europe, which receive “green” credits for burning or co-firing wood instead of coal.

Dr. Robert Abt, a forest economics professor at North Carolina State University, says that tapping forests for energy is bound to involve some compromises.

Unlike Western forests, which are largely public lands, nearly 90 percent of the forests of the U.S. South are privately owned.

“It is now well understood that using fossil fuels as the basis of our energy economy has had significant environmental consequences,” says Abt. “When we look at lower carbon intensity in other non-renewable alternatives, like fracking for natural gas or nuclear power, we see these same types of tradeoffs emerge. It should be no surprise that moving an economy toward a renewable alternative will involve similar tradeoffs.”

And like any other rapidly expanding new industry, he says, renewable energy should be carefully monitored.

“While the future of U.S. renewable energy policy is uncertain, the European Union has committed to 20 percent renewable energy within a short time frame,” Abt says. “The U.S. South, with its growing inventory of low-cost, privately owned forests and proximity to Western Europe, is poised to become the dominant supplier of renewable fuel in the form of pellets. The tradeoffs in this landscape are quickly moving from a hypothetical modeling exercise to significant changes on the forest landscape.”

Among the advantages: The business is bringing jobs to areas ravaged by mill closures. Hundreds of sawmills have closed since 2005, including the largest pulp mill in the South in September 2013. Alabama alone has seen a 21 percent decrease in mill capacity and a 43 percent drop in paper manufacturing jobs since 1990.

Some biomass companies are also recycling wood waste that might otherwise go to a landfill. One new tax-subsidized plant, the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, plans to burn one million green tons of wood each year, including logging leftovers and city tree trimmings – enough to power 70,000 homes, says Albert Morales, the company’s CFO. Noting that such wood waste is often burned in open fires, Morales says, “The air is actually cleaner than it would be if we weren’t here.”

For now and for the immediate future, the South has plenty of wood to supply utility companies with pellets and chips, says David Wear, Ph.D., an economist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Center and a co-leader of the Futures Project. Standing stock has increased from about 2.5 billion tons of wood in 1963 to over 4.1 billion in 2010, despite a near doubling of timber harvest in the region between 1950 and 2000.

“The U.S. South… is poised to become the dominant supplier of renewable fuel in the form of wood pellets. The tradeoffs in this landscape are quickly moving from a hypothetical modeling exercise to significant changes on the forest landscape.” -Dr. Robert Abt, North Carolina State University

“To date, a very small percentage of the harvest goes to energy,” Wear says. “There’s room for growth of bioenergy without any reduction of biomass.” A slump in the paper industry in recent years has created room for another industry to move in without dramatically increasing logging, he adds. Other researchers in the Forest Service, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and elsewhere echo his views, noting that “woody biomass” from trees can be sustainable, depending on where and how it is used.

However, some scientists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are sounding the warning that harvesting whole trees for energy could eventually put real stress on forests, including the seemingly endless expanse of trees in the Southeastern U.S. Environmental groups in opposition include the Dogwood Alliance, a powerful network of more than 70 organizations in the U.S. South, which, along with the National Resources Defense Council, is heading a campaign called “Our Forests Are Not Fuel.”

The European connection

The growing demand for wood in EU countries attempting to meet renewable energy targets is causing environmentalists particular concern. Pellet exports from North America have tripled since 2006. But some analysts feel this concern is overblown, contending that the EU does well supplying itself with bioenergy. The EU-27 countries are the largest global producers of wood pellets, producing 11.4 million tons in 2012, almost twice the production in the U.S. and Canada combined. In 2012, exports totaled only 1.5 million tons from the U.S. and 1.4 million tons from Canada.

“It’s true that the pellet industry in the U.S. is growing rapidly,” contends Heather Youngs, a scientist with the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, “but the actual volumes of material are well within the production potential.”

“The annual harvest in the Southeastern U.S. is around 225 million tons and the demand for U.S. pulp continues to lag,” Youngs says. “So we’re talking about exporting less than 1 percent of production in this region. Similarly in British Columbia, the other large pellet region, the Ministry of Forests estimates that seven million tons of wood harvest residues and slash are burned there as waste each year. I just don’t see that as a good use of carbon. Capturing some energy from a portion of that biomass to offset fossil fuels, whether that is here or in the EU, makes sense.”

Although the EU recognized sustainability practices in the U.S. earlier this year, critics charge that some biomass harvesters logging Southern trees for Europe have accepted practices that would never be allowed in much of Europe itself.

Many bioenergy producers are located near already existing tree plantations and use plantation wood. But in May 2013, contractors supplying both lumber and an Enviva pellet mill shipping to Europe clear-cut a stretch of wetlands for logs in a cypress and tupelo swamp along the Roanoke River in North Carolina, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Contractors also reported that they had sold Enviva wood from clearcuts in forests more than 100 years old.

Such practices are legal in uncertified areas of North Carolina and much of the U.S. But the UK and many other European countries prohibit logging in areas important for biodiversity, such as bogs and wetlands, except for purposes of restoration. These restrictions also apply to most wood for bioenergy sourced from other countries.

Enviva confirmed the wetlands logging, telling the Journal that the contractors were following state-recommended best practices for sustainable logging and the landowners would let the forest re-grow. The company defends its practices as environmentally sound. “As a company which uses a natural resource as its only raw material, Enviva is not only committed to, but obliged to, ensure that sourcing, production, and transport operations are sustainable,” it asserted in a recent white paper.

Note: Only counties with at least 5% forest cover in 2001 were included in these calculations Sources: WRI analysis based on NLCD 2006 Land Cover Change Product, USGS, 2011

But wetlands are especially fragile habitats, and it’s difficult to predict exactly how the forest will recover, says William Conner, a professor of forestry at Clemson University in South Carolina. “I’ve seen cases where forests came back OK, and cases where they didn’t,” he says.

A push for certification

Although trees do eventually return after clear cuts, such logging inevitably changes the biological make-up of the land, Conner says. For example, water tupelo trees often take over after clear cuts of cypress forests. And, he says, many animals, including woodpeckers and bears, strongly prefer older forests to the new growth that follows a clear cut.

Geologist Stanley Riggs, of East Carolina University, has also asserted that swamp forests protect against flooding and that clear-cutting them was tantamount to “destroying a whole eco-system.”
In theory, wood pellet companies could pledge to use wood only from certified forests (see Tangled up in Green, page 16). In reality, only a small percentage of southern forests are certified. As recently as 2011, less than 1 percent of the forests in North Carolina were covered by the FSC. In 2013 only 23 percent of all actively logged forests in the South had any sort of certification.

But bioenergy demands may create a demand for certification, experts say.

“Until now there have not been markets where there was a perceived economic advantage to certification,” says Abt. “The European Union sustainability standards are providing this incentive. Both Enviva and International Wood Fuels (pellet producers that depend on hardwoods) have adopted standards and provided chain-of-custody documentation that move this important land base toward certification.”

Abt added that the old-growth clear cuts reported in North Carolina were likely an anomaly. “Both pulp mills and pellet mills buy lower priced and lower-quality timber. The extra income this provides could make harvesting economically viable in areas previously unprofitable. But I wouldn’t expect the low-value products to drive high-cost logging of old-growth hardwoods.”

Ultimately, regulations that give real protection to southern forests may have to come from London or Amsterdam, not Washington or Atlanta. The UK, the Netherlands, and other countries are currently considering new restrictions for their supply of wood pellets. If European countries decide to hold American wood to higher standards, the bioenergy industry would pose a much smaller threat to the most fragile ecosystems of the South, Carr says.

The Plantation Puzzle

One of the big debates in the bioenergy world is over the value and drawbacks of plantations. The Futures Project report predicts that bioenergy could double the demand for southern wood in the coming decades, putting strong pressure on the region’s forests. Nearly one-fifth of forests in the South are already pine plantations, mostly on private land, and a strong demand for bioenergy could nearly double that percentage by 2060, according to the Futures Project. That could mean 30 million new acres of tree plantations.

The benefits of plantations for biomass producers are clear. A uniform feedstock makes harvesting cheaper and more reliable. It also makes the energy conversion less challenging. Finally, the growth rate for trees in plantations is typically higher than natural stands, which is needed to offset the cost of management. In the southern U.S., pine plantations yield four-fold more than natural stands.

But the environmental effects are less clear. Proponents of plantations argue that increasing productivity on some intensively managed land could spare more land for natural reserves. While some plantations are likely to spring up on agricultural land, many of them would likely replace natural forests, according to the report. That transformation could reduce habitat for many animals, including woodpeckers and gopher frogs, says Joseph Pechmann, associate professor of biology at Western Carolina University.

And according to the Futures Project report, pressure on Southern forests from bioenergy, urbanization and climate change could threaten more than 1,000 species of plants and animals in the South in the coming decades.

Opposition to eucalyptus plantations

While most plantations in the south grow pines, trees with shorter growth cycles are candidates for pulp and bioenergy. Some in the South are looking at eucalyptus, an Australian tree that has transformed the pulp industry in Brazil. The trees grow quickly, which is both a promising feature for energy production and a potential source of trouble. “Eucalyptus trees are non-native and extremely invasive,” says Danna Smith, executive director of the Dogwood Alliance.

So far, eucalyptus has not received much traction because sensitivity to cold limits its productivity in the region. New advances in biotechnology could change that. Arborgen has developed a genetically modified eucalypt that tolerates freezing, increasing the biomass yield 15 to 28 percent. The company, whose motto is “more trees, less land,” faces strong opposition.

The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division cites “serious concerns about potential impacts on hydrology, soil chemistry, native biodiversity and ecosystem functions.” The wildlife division also asserted that water-hungry eucalyptus trees could lower the water table in already water-stressed areas – concerns shared with the Forest Service – and that volatile oils from its leaves might contribute to “catastrophic firestorms.”

A 2013 report in an international forestry journal concluded that eucalyptus plantations could grow in the relatively moist southern coastal plain without threatening water supplies, but it also cautioned that the trees should be kept away from sensitive watersheds. The same report noted that while the trees haven’t yet shown any tendency to invade native forests in the South, some seedlings have sprouted beyond the plantations, underlining the need for caution.

Hope for working forests?

Smith of the Dogwood Alliance, who is an environmental attorney by training, cautions that the loss of natural forests and the potential spread of chemically treated tree plantations is a one-two punch that threatens biodiversity and water quality in the South. “We’re talking about an industry that’s just getting started, but there’s a huge potential for growth,” says Smith. “The South is already the leading supplier of wood pellets in the world. We need to be looking at ways to restore our forests, not depleting them.”

Pileated woodpecker- Dave Herr/U.S. Forest Service. In the south, pileated woodpeckers are often seen foraging for carpenter ants in dead trees.

Whether natural, managed, or plantation, some stakeholders contend that “working forests” may ultimately help preserve biodiversity. “Since the South’s forests are privately owned, increasing income to forest landowners has been empirically shown to increase acres of timberland,” says Abt.

“There’s a way forward, but we have to go beyond the adversarial paradigm of the last 25 years. It shouldn’t be industry versus environmental groups. The way forward is through dialogue.” Jody Endres, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

For its part, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that suburban encroachment will threaten approximately 12 million acres of southern forests between 1992 and 2020 and an additional 19 million acres between 2020 and 2040. The World Resources Institute has put forth several plans to “catalyze sustainable stewardship” by using income generated by working forests to preserve ecosystem services.

Gail and Philip Jones of Andalusia, Ala., who planted native long-leaf pine on their timberland after a hurricane, agree that stewardship starts with landowners. The Jones family and another relative have about 400 “working acres” of pine teeming with wildlife, including deer, turkeys, and more than 40 gopher tortoise burrows. The Joneses have borrowed forest management techniques to improve the wildlife habitat in their small ecosystem. “We don’t think it’s a model forest,” Gail Jones has said, “but if someone can learn something from (it), it’s worth it.”

If the bioenergy industry is going to continue to tap into southern forests, all of the stakeholders will have to work together to make sure that the forests can survive, says Illinois professor Endres. “There’s a way forward, but we have to go beyond the adversarial paradigm of the last 25 years,” she says. “It shouldn’t be industry versus environmental groups. The way forward is through cooperative and productive dialogue.”

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