Remaining tree stumps after a clear-cut forested wetlands.

Pellet Industry Threatens Wetland Forests and Climate

Written by Heather Hillaker, a Staff Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center

We are in the midst of a global climate and biodiversity crisis, and the wood pellet and biomass industries, which claim to be a solution, are threats to both. Cutting down and burning growing forests for electricity actually emits more carbon dioxide than burning coal. These actions will increase atmospheric carbon for at least the next several decades—the exact time when we need to be drastically reducing emissions— while also degrading our native forests.

Wood pellets are made mostly from living trees, which are taken to pellet mills, ground into chips, dried, and formed into pellets. Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, currently operates nine pellet mills throughout the southeast—six of which source a large amount of wood from North and South Carolina. Enviva acknowledges that 83% of its wood comes directly from forests, including forests within these two states (see map).

Wood Pellet Plants Exporting to Europe
Map of operating (yellow circle), proposed (red circle), and prospective (pink circle) wood pellet plants in the southeast. Source: Southern Environmental Law Center

Impacts to Wetlands

Over the last decade, independent, on-the-ground investigations have uncovered that Enviva’s northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia mills often relied on mature trees taken from forested wetlands. Most of this harvesting is happening within the Coastal Plain, an area that was designated in 2016 as a global biodiversity hotspot because of its high species richness and endemism. Less than a third of this area’s native vegetation remains. Harvesting for pellet mills is exacerbating existing pressures on these forests and contributing to the degradation of these valuable ecosystems, including iconic wetland forests.

The wetland forests that dot the Carolina coasts are some of North America’s most valuable ecosystems. They improve water quality, protect against floods, and provide critical wildlife habitats— especially for migratory songbirds that are appreciated by even the most casual nature-lovers. But despite these immense benefits, most of these incredible forests have already been lost, and what remains now are subjected to clearcutting to produce wood pellets that are shipped overseas to be burned for electricity.

Remaining tree stumps after a clear-cut forested wetlands.
Photograph of a clearcut wetland forest in North Carolina. Logs harvested from this site were documented entering Enviva’s pellet mill. Source: Dogwood Alliance

Impacts to Communities

The biomass and wood pellet industries aren’t just bad for forests, they hurt the climate and nearby communities too. Even though it is touted as “clean energy”, burning wood pellets from forests for electricity increases the amount of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere for 40-100 years, worsening climate change. Moreover, the pellet mills located throughout the southeast, including Enviva’s pellet mills in North and South Carolina, release harmful pollutants and dust negatively impacting the health of those living nearby. These mills are built primarily in low-wealth communities of color, where people are already overburdened by an unfair share of pollution.

Let’s be clear, the wood pellet and biomass industries are not clean energy, and as the U.S. moves towards real climate action, we must make sure that our policies promote genuine low-carbon renewable energy sources. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes as European countries that offer billions of dollars in government subsidies to these harmful industries. Our climate, forests, and communities depend on the U.S. making the right choice by excluding forest biomass from any clean energy policy.

Call to Action

You can help by signing this petition to tell President Biden that biomass is not a part of our clean energy future.


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About the Author

Heather Hillaker is a Staff Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in issues surrounding the use of forest-derived biomass for energy. Heather is actively involved in SELC’s UK, US, and state-level work on the issue, including efforts to strengthen protections for communities living near wood pellet plants.