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Not a clearcut issue: Wood pellets, carbon sequestration, and war in Ukraine

A load of wood enters a wood pellet plant operated by Enviva Partners in Sampson County, N.C. Enviva is one of the largest producers of wood pellets in the U.S.
Dan Charles
A load of wood enters a wood pellet plant operated by Enviva Partners in Sampson County, N.C. Enviva is one of the largest producers of wood pellets in the U.S.

Environmental activists decry wood pellet production as harmful to North Carolina forests, while the war in Ukraine has increased demand for this source of energy.

Wood pellets are made of dried and compressed wood fiber. Most are sent overseas, where many European countries burn the wood pellets for energy. Enviva is the largest wood pellet company in the United States.

The wood pellet industry is a controversial one. While wood pellets are touted as a source of carbon-neutral energy by the industry, many environmental activists say that’s not the whole story.

UNCW professor Roger Shew said it’s not a clearcut issue.

"When you cut down or use real trees, you're losing the carbon sequestration," said Shew. "And so then when I go in and plant another tree, it takes a decade or more for that seedling tree to start really sequestering larger volumes of carbon.”

Shew said if Enviva were only using scrap limbs and sawmill residue to make wood pellets, that process would be close to carbon neutral. But he said that oftentimes, whole, decades-old trees that have stored large amounts of carbon over that time are used.

Enviva disputed this.

Enviva has said that this process is better for the environment than fossil fuel energy, because they plant more trees than the amount cut down each year.

The company calls for, “landscape level accounting,” rather than looking at individual tracts or trees to count carbon emissions. They say that view shows growing volumes of biomass — meaning more, not less carbon is sequestered.

Environmentalists say not all biomass is created equal, and older trees do a better job of taking carbon out of the air. And taking an even broader view, they say Enviva does not account for the emissions created by shipping pellets across the ocean, and is not transparent about differences in carbon accounting between different countries.

Ina video on Enviva’s YouTube channel, Jennifer Jenkins, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, describes how Enviva defines “good” biomass for its uses.

“So here’s how we define good biomass: it’s made from low-value wood that is a byproduct of sawmill operation or of a planned traditional timber harvest," she said.

According to Enviva, the wood they pelletize is low-value and has no other commercial use. But many environmental advocates say that trees serve plenty of non-economic purposes, including biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Less than 20% of Enviva’s supply comes from industrial residues, like sawmills, and the rest primarily comes from existing forests, according to the company’s 2021 corporate sustainability report.

A wartime boom, but will it last?

Enviva's business model has historically included government subsidies from the United Kingdom, but recently another market force has been improving the company's bottom line — Russian President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine. As Forbes reported last month, the internationally-condemned military action has produced a"windfall" for Enviva, as European countries are seeing an increased demand for wood pellets.

Despite the recent spike, Roger Shew said that demand might decrease over time.

"There will be a push to reduce the amount of pellet usage, particularly because I think the EU is starting to see that this is not as environmental as what they were originally saying," he said.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that demand for wood pellets might start to grow in the United States. If the wood pellets no longer have to be shipped overseas, that could mean a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions.

Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.