Is burning wood pellets in the UK fueling the climate crisis?

The Biomass Delusion Comes to Mississippi
Wood pellet processing mill in Mississippi

The Southeast United States is the largest sourcing area for the wood pellets used in electric plants in the UK. Wood pellet companies use some whole trees and some by-products, like logging slash, wood waste, and sawdust from factories and sawmills. The use of whole trees to make pellets is fairly controversial as is the question of whether the short-term burning of trees turned into pellet fuel can be balanced by long-term replanting and growth of trees on harvest sites around the Southeast – two different time scales. A new pine plantation takes at least 15 years under the best conditions to grow to a “first thinning” stage for a selective harvest. The trees from forests harvested in Mississippi in Spring will make it to Yorkshire to be burned as pellets within 6 months, while the landowner may not have new trees planted until next Winter and they’ll have to grow for at least 15 years. Is this really a renewable fuel when there exists such a large time lag to grow a new forest and does the carbon dioxide released by combustion balance with the carbon storage from tree growth, or is burning wood pellets in the UK fueling the climate crisis? The answer seems to depend on who does the accounting.

The wood pellet industry is subsidized by the British Government at a rate of 2.2 million British pounds per day. Electric ratepayers there are footing the bill for everything that follows from their government’s policy decision to burn wood pellets mixed with coal. Natural gas and electric power have always been expensive for household customers in the UK. The subsidies for the wood pellet fuel industry are built on the backs of already financially stressed British ratepayers and now inflation is making lots of other things more expensive as well.

This week, staff members from the British Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) met with Rita Frost of Dogwood Alliance, Kathy Egland of EEECHO (Gulfport), David Carr of Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), myself from Healthy Gulf, and Dr. Bill Moomaw, a retired professor of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.  It’s important that the British government gets to see how the wood pellet business affects the places where the wood is sourced. We did our best to show them.

Dr. Moomaw began the meeting by explaining that burning wood pellets at a Drax power plant, in Yorkshire, is not actually reducing carbon dioxide emissions. He explained the idea of foregone carbon storage on U.S. soil, and the wood pellet companies’ myth that rapid replanting makes a difference because mature forests sequester more carbon than replanted acres of skinny saplings. It takes a long time for the replanted areas to catch up on carbon storage, and time is short for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Mississippi wood pellet plant that supplies UK electricity grid fined $2.5m  over air pollution
Pine saplings among older trees

Drax sends wood pellets from its three facilities in Gloster, Ms, Bastrop, La, and Urania, La to the UK via ships loaded in Baton Rouge. The Drax plant in Gloster, Ms was fined by the Mississippi DEQ for air emissions violations shortly after becoming operational. The people living around the plant only found out because of investigations by the Environmental Integrity Project and publication by Dogwood Alliance. 

Kathy Egland of Gulfport spoke about the health problems of the people living in homes on the fenceline of the Gloster Drax plant who breathe the dust and chemicals that pollute the air. Kathy experienced gagging and nausea when she visited Gloster this year. The Drax plant’s air violation fine was one of the largest ever in Mississippi and no pellet mill in the U.S. has been fined as much – $2.5 million. Kathy made the point that burning biomass is a false solution to the climate crisis. Additionally, it causes health and environmental justice crises for fenceline areas like Gloster, a predominantly Black community.

Bill and Rita emphasized that the carbon uptake and storage provided by a forest, left standing for over 15 years, is a transaction cost that is not being addressed. Dr. Moomaw calls it proforestation – a way of emphasizing the ecosystem services (carbon storage, habitat, biodiversity, water storage) of standing, growing, mature trees. All three policy presenters, Rita, Bill, and David made the point that burning wood pellets in the UK is fueling the climate crisis in the Gulf Coast and is not really reducing the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.

 The need to reduce anthropogenic CO2 is the kernel of truth at the center of our climate problem. The wood pellet industry is good at adding layers of confusing carbon accounting, subsidies, and marketing around the edges of that truth. The coal/pellet mix that’s being burned in the UK power plants still puts plenty of CO2 into the atmosphere. Experts on each side continue to debate the question of whether wood pellets are really renewable, given the time scale that the power plants and pellet mills operate on. 

For my part in the presentation, I emphasized that the 60-mile timber-supply circles around the mills in Gloster and Lucedale include lots of coastal forest and wetlands. The Upper and Lower Pascagoula Wildlife Management Areas, consisting of 35,000 acres of celebrated conservation lands owned by the state of Mississippi are within the Lucedale mill’s supply circle.  The state of Mississippi is not above selling its high-quality timber for low purposes, but wood harvesters should stay away from rivers and out of the coastal zones of Louisiana and Mississippi. We have sea-level rise, saltwater intrusion, subsiding land, and other factors like invasive plant and animal species, all of which complicate the restoration efforts. We have low-pressure weather systems in the Gulf year-round now, during which, southeast winds push water from the Mississippi Sound into Mississippi estuaries and into lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas in Louisiana. This creates frequent wind-forced brackish water flooding events in freshwater wetlands. Ghost forests, killed by saltwater are scattered through Louisiana’s coastal zone already.  I emphasized that the remaining coastal forests have a job to do here – hold the sinking soils together.  This makes them far more valuable here as opposed to chopping them down to be turned into pellets for boiler fuel.

Our Forests Aren't Fuel | NRDC
Gulf Coast wetlands left muddy and baren after intense logging.

I ended with a quote from Alexander Pope  from “Of the Use of Riches” (1731) “Tis use alone that sanctifies expense.” Pope goes on to write about trees planted for utilitarian purposes on the country estate of his friend: “Whose rising forests, not for pride or show, but future buildings, future navies grow. Let his plantations stretch from down to down, first shade a country, then raise a town.” I explained to our guests from the UK BEIS that Pope could not have contemplated our current climate crisis, but at the same time, his practical “Age of Reason” outlook doesn’t seem to contemplate what the UK is now supporting with subsidies – millions of tons of trees used as industrial fuel. It’s hard to look at making wood pellets from Southeastern US forests and say that it justifies the expense of foregone carbon capture, health problems for fence-line communities, lost habitat and biodiversity, decreased groundwater infiltration, worsening coastal land subsidence, less resilience to storms, and worse water quality in rivers and streams after intense logging. The BEIS staff listened politely to all the presentations, even to the lines from Pope. Hopefully, their takeaway is that the ends do not justify the means.