The US Is Cutting Down Its Forests to Feed Europe's Biomass Fuel Craze

Illustration for article titled The US Is Cutting Down Its Forests to Feed Europes Biomass Fuel Craze

Since 2012, the US has held the title of world’s number one wood pellet exporter. What’s the big deal with wood pellets? Well, Europe has very keen on replacing coal with more environmentally friendly wood pellets—except, well, depending on who you ask, wood may not be that great either.


The Washington Post has a fascinating piece on the far-reaching consequences of Europe’s move toward biomass fuels. To wit, thousands of trees are being chopped down in the U.S. each month, ground into sawdust, pressed into pellets, and shipped to Europe. These wood pellets, which are a type of biomass fuel, can often be burned in existing coal power plants, making them an attractive alternative to countries trying to get off of coal.

As a result, demand for wood pellets is soaring, particularly from the United States. U.S. exports of wood pellets doubled between 2012 and 2014, from 2 million tons to 4.4 million, and climate policies are expected to drive even higher increases over the next decade. After surpassing Canada in 2012, the United States “continues to be the largest wood pellet exporter in the world,” an April report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration stated.

U.S. companies are now racing to keep up with demand. The country’s largest producer of wood pellets, Enviva, based in Bethesda, Md., has built six pellet mills in four states since its founding in 2004 and recently announced plans to build three new ones. The company operates its own deep-water terminal in Chesapeake, Va., loading sea­going barges with nearly 1.5 million metric tons of wood pellets every year, most of them bound for Britain.


The Post’s investigations focuses on Enviva because it sources its wood from existing forests rather than dedicated pine plantations. Enviva says it only uses “waste” wood, low-quality stuff that would otherwise be pulped. Environment groups, however, claim the company has been cutting down mature trees. Whether Enviva really are better for carbon emissions hinges on this question. Read the whole story for more on biomass fuels.

[Washington Post]

Top image: A power plant in Britain that burns both coal and biomass. AP Photo/Jon Super

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The obvious solution is to somehow use enormous pressure and heat over enough time to turn plant material into rock hard chunks of carbon.