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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

CoastLine: Justin Catanoso on Enviva crisis, wood pellet industry, why environmental reporting doesn't always have two equal sides

In the spring of 2019, investigators tracked logging trucks coming from a mature hardwood forest and going to Enviva’s Northampton, North Carolina, facility. The clear-cut, seen here, was located in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin, alongside Sandy Creek, feeding into the Pamlico Sound of North Carolina.
Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.
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Dogwood Alliance
In the spring of 2019, investigators tracked logging trucks coming from a mature hardwood forest and going to Enviva’s Northampton, North Carolina, facility. The clear-cut, seen here, was located in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin, alongside Sandy Creek, feeding into the Pamlico Sound of North Carolina.

Enviva company officials assured critics that wood pellets are mostly made of waste: treetops, limbs, even sawdust. Not true, according to reporting from environmental journalist and WFU Professor Justin Catanoso, who also says the science shows wood pellet burning contributes more to the climate crisis than burning coal.

Wood pellets resemble manufactured hamster food -- just slightly larger. They’re cylindrical pieces of compressed wood that countries in Europe and Asia buy to fuel their power grids in place of coal.

Much of the metric tonnage of pellets going overseas are former North Carolina forestlands.

Why the big appetite for wood pellets abroad? Partly because the European Union’s climate and energy program still deems wood pellets carbon-neutral, renewable energy sources.

Public skepticism around these claims, though, is rising.

Enviva, the largest wood pellet manufacturer in the world, boasts four plants in North Carolina along with a distribution facility at the Wilmington port.

When concerns first arose among North Carolina environmentalists about the state’s pine and hardwood forests going into wood-chippers for shipment overseas, Enviva company officials assured critics that wood pellets are mostly made of waste: treetops, limbs, even sawdust. According to reporting from environmental journalist Justin Catanoso, also a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University, that claim is false.

After covering climate change-related issues for more than a decade, Catanoso has been chipping away at other Enviva company assertions, including the notion that Enviva only buys wood from areas that will be re-planted.

In a recent article for Mongabay, a conservation news organization, Catanoso seeks to explain why “a billion-dollar company with long-term contracts around the world, and where demand for pellets is at a record high, had lost more than $250 million this year and exhausted a $570 million line of credit.”

It’s an economic and environmental issue for the state of North Carolina, particularly in the east, so we hear from Justin Catanoso about what he’s learning.

Wake Forest journalism professor Justin Catanoso poses outside Tribble Hall on Monday, October 22, 2018.
Ken Bennett/©WFU/Ken Bennett
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HO/WFU
Wake Forest journalism professor Justin Catanoso poses outside Tribble Hall on Monday, October 22, 2018.

We also explore his reporting process. As a professor of journalism, how does he think about the line between environmental advocacy and writing for news?

When there’s so much at stake, how does he vet anonymous sources?

He joined us courtesy of member station WFDD in Winston-Salem.

Links & Resources:

Mongabay

Justin Catanoso: https://www.justincatanoso.com/

Mongabay: Enviva, the world’s largest biomass energy company, is near collapse. Here’s why.

Whistleblower: Enviva claim of ‘being good for the planet… all nonsense’: https://news.mongabay.com/2022/12/envivas-biomass-lies-whistleblower-account/

Surging wood pellet industry threatens climate, say experts; Mongabay / Sharon Guynup

“Wood pellets draw fire as alternative to coal,” link to MIT study

Financial downturn at Enviva could mean trouble for biomass energy

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.