New investigation exposes destruction of forests to feed UK biomass plants

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A new, hard-hitting investigation exposes how the UK’s demand for so-called ‘biomass’ energy is destroying valuable forests and ecosystems in the U.S. Southeast, a designated global biodiversity hotspot. The photographic evidence gathered by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dogwood Alliance, and the Southern Environmental Law Center documents the devastating ecological impact of biomass sourcing done for Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet producer, to supply the UK utility Drax Power’s burning of wood to generate electricity. 

In a recent YouGov poll, only 3% of respondents thought the British government should be promoting biomass electricity using trees shipped in from overseas forests. Nevertheless, the UK government provides hundreds of millions of pounds per year in public subsidies to bankroll biomass energy at Drax Power Station. Burning wood pellets for electricity is anything but green – it accelerates climate change, destroys forests and increases emissions of dangerous air pollutants. But this hasn’t stopped Drax. A voracious demand for wood means Drax imports millions of tonnes of wood pellets, mostly from the U.S. Southeast.

The new documentary evidence revealed today shows how hardwood forests in the region are clear cut and vast quantities of whole trees and other large-diameter wood are sent to industrial mills to be manufactured into pellets to feed Drax’s boilers. The biomass sourcing practices documented in the investigation are all allowed to continue under UK regulations and Drax’s sustainability standards.

“There’s nothing green about devastating these stunning forests and then shipping the wood across the ocean to be burned in dirty power plants,” said Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This investigation is a direct challenge to the UK government’s policy of continuing to prop up Drax because it lets the British public see with their own eyes the reality of this dirty and destructive industry.”

The U.S. wood pellet mills that supply the fuel for Drax’s wood-burning facilities are located in areas that already endure some of the highest logging rates in the world, with surrounding communities suffering high poverty rates and facing the threat of flooding from climate change. What’s more, the mills tracked in this investigation release dangerous air pollution, often over legal levels.

“The UK’s dependence on biomass puts some of the world’s most ecologically valuable forests at risk,” said Rita Frost, campaigns director at Dogwood Alliance, which conducted the investigation. “If the UK is going to live up to its promises to address our climate crisis, it must cut harmful carbon emissions, not forests. It’s long past time for the UK government to end its subsidies for this false climate solution.”

In its Global Assessment Report last month, the UN revealed that a million species are at risk of extinction as natural ecosystems are destroyed and emphasised the role of human activity in the depletion of forests and other wild landscapes. Forests in the U.S. Southeast are being logged at four times the rate of those in the Amazon.

In the last year, the UK Committee on Climate Change made it clear that biomass must not be considered carbon neutral because it can result in carbon emissions comparable to those from fossil fuels. As part of that acknowledgement, the committee underscored the risks associated with biomass imports, including those from the very forests documented in this investigation.

“The photos do not lie,” Stashwick said. “It’s time to revoke Drax’s undeserved ‘green’ credentials and tell the truth about biomass.”

For further information, the full investigation booklet can be found here: https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/global-markets-biomass-energy-06172019.pdf