Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is one of a number of officials attending the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow. As with most people at the conference, known as COP26, he was there to tout his commitment to a safe climate.
In between threads on his participation in panels on energy resilience and adaptation, Edwards retweeted a post from biomass company Drax, which posted photos of the governor touring a power plant fueled by wood pellets. The company said during the tour, Edwards learned about “sustainable biomass generation.” But Drax’s plant is anything but sustainable—and poses a huge risk to the planet and Louisiana’s forests.
Using biomass to produce electricity is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory, but has a lot of problems in practice. The idea behind biomass power it’s essentially a closed loop; trees are cut down, turned into pellets, and burned, and the saplings planted in their place suck up the carbon dioxide emitted by burning the wood pellets. But studies have shown that burning wood for energy can actually emit more carbon than coal. The carbon debt incurred by chopping down forests for fuel can take more than 90 years to be paid back—not exactly what we need as we face an increasingly diminishing timeline to stave off catastrophic warming.
What’s more, while many biomass producers claim they use sawdust and woodchips that are the unwanted byproduct of the lumber industry, the industry is increasingly relying on chopping down trees exclusively for pellet production. The Southeast is ground zero for the pellet industry while the Drax biomass plant is one of the world’s largest.
Biomass has also come under fire from environmental justice advocates, who point out that the industry in the U.S. is poorly regulated and that facilities are overwhelmingly located in Black and brown communities. Big biomass states like Louisiana and North Carolina only require plants to obtain air and water quality permits to be built, allowing them to be exempt from regulations that limit emissions from other types of industrial facilities. In Mississippi, that state’s Department of Environment Quality fined Drax in February for $2.5 million, charging that the plant has been producing three to four times the amount of air pollution its permit allows for years.
“Our observation in Alabama is that these companies claim to be using discarded lumber while getting owners of large swaths of land to give them access to the timber on their lands, often clear-cutting those forests,” Michael Hansen, the executive director of the nonprofit GASP, said via email. “Local politicians claim these are drivers of local economic growth and job-creating opportunities for poor areas like Alabama’s Black Belt and other areas in the Gulf South, but that has never proven to be true for the locals. It’s usually a boon to the wealthy landowners whose families have owned hundreds or thousands of acres for generations.”
But the industry has taken off in the U.S. in recent years, fueled in large part by demand from the EU, which has determined biomass as a carbon-neutral power source. Drax calls its massive power station in the UK the country’s “largest renewable power station,” which it feeds with pellets produced at its three pellet plants in Louisiana and Mississippi. The transatlantic journey these U.S.-produced wood pellets make to reach their final destinations abroad adds the hefty carbon footprint of the pellets’ life cycle. Climate and energy research firm Ember calculated earlier this month that, with proper accounting procedures that the UK currently doesn’t use, the Drax plant is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the entire country.
“Ember’s interpretation of the figures for Drax’s CO2 emissions is inaccurate and completely at odds with what the world’s leading climate scientists at the UN IPCC say about sustainable biomass being crucial to delivering global climate targets,” a spokesperson from Drax said in response to a question about the Ember report.
If Edwards has gotten the memo about biomass’s questionable renewable creds, he doesn’t seem to have listened. He’s been a pretty vocal supporter of Drax in recent years, and the company has made itself a home in Louisiana; Drax currently operates two of the state’s four biomass production facilities and uses the port in Baton Rouge to export wood pellets to Europe. After Drax moved its headquarters from Atlanta to Monroe, Louisiana, in 2018, Edwards issued a statement saying that “Louisiana aggressively pursued Drax Biomass” to move their headquarters. “This is a testament to our state’s ability to attract new business opportunities and create jobs.”
According to a press release about Edwards’ UK Drax tour, the governor heard about Drax’s plans for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) during his tour of the facilities. The industry has set its sights on deploying BECCS that would allow it to claim biomass facilities are a source of “negative emissions.” That’s the holy grail of energy, essentially meaning that the power plant would actually be a source of emissions reductions and not just averted emissions.
In the press release, Jason Shipstone, Drax’s chief innovation officer, talked about the company’s plans to “develop the world’s biggest negative emissions power station” in the UK, which, he said, means that “Louisiana could play an even greater role in addressing the climate crisis.” But an NRDC analysis has found that because most carbon emissions from biomass production occur offsite, rather than at the power plant itself, the addition of carbon capture at a biomass power plant would still emit around 80% of the carbon as what comes out of a coal plant smokestack. BECCS is also a far-off technology nowhere near ready for primetime. It’s one worth investing research into, but not a slam dunk by any means.
The NRDC analysis “relies on a long list of false assumptions, is incorrect and ill-informed, and is not aligned with latest climate science or policies on bioenergy,” the Drax spokesperson said. “The UN IPCC is the world’s leading body on climate change, made up of thousands of the world’s foremost scientists. It has recently stated that sustainable biomass and BECCS have a vital role to play in meeting global climate targets.”
Edwards’s visit to Scotland is part of a larger push from his administration to be seen as a climate-friendly governor in a particularly at-risk state. “No state in our nation is more affected by climate change than Louisiana, but it’s also true that no state is better positioned to be part of the solution to the problems facing our world,” Edwards said in a press release on his trip. ”Make no mistake: an industry-wide transition to cleaner, less environmentally impactful energy production and utilization is going to happen regardless of if Louisiana participates, so it’s best that Louisiana be a leader in this space.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a U.S. politician seeking climate creds would cozy up with polluters in an attempt to bolster his state’s public image on the world stage. But it’s something we may see more of with politicians from the South who could see big money from biomass companies. (The call may be coming from inside the White House, too: EPA administrator Michael Regan was formerly the head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, and under his watch there, the state became the world’s largest exporter of biomass fuel.)
“I don’t think any politician promoting biomass as a solution to climate change should be taken seriously,” said Hansen. “Their commitment to solving the climate crisis is meager at best.”