For the larger settlement bill, which is still under negotiation, the language would also support logging on both federal and private lands, as well as support for forest biomass energy, wood-pellet facilities, and production of laminated wood (a type of ready-made wood) and shingles used in construction homes) under the heading “Inventing Wood”.
In their letter, the scientists wrote that encouraging more commercial logging and wood-fired electricity “ignores the advice of hundreds of climate and forest scientists who previously told Congress that these industries significantly increase emissions and exacerbate the climate crisis.”
But not all experts agree on this point. Bob Abt has researched the ecology and economics of southern forests for more than 40 years, and is Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University. Under the right economic and environmental conditions, he says, the carbon footprint of wood pellets can be lower than that of coal. Making this equation work—so that the amount of carbon burned to generate electricity today is offset by the growth of trees in the future—has several requirements. First, says Abt, timber owners should harvest fast-growing trees, such as pines or mixed hardwoods found in the South. The same process also wouldn’t work in forests in New England or the Pacific Northwest, which take much longer to regenerate.
The second thing is to make sure that the landowners who sell the timber to the pellet companies continue to produce their land as working forests. As the demand for wood for energy increases, Abt says, so does the price of wood. It would be an incentive for timber owners to keep their trees growing to maturity, rather than converting that same land into pastures for livestock or farmland for seasonal crops, or selling it to housing developers. A 2017 study by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that sprawl from residential spaces and shopping malls could also put these forests at risk. “Urbanization – currently the largest cause of forest loss in the southeastern United States – is likely to expand into forest landscapes if forest landowners lack sufficient opportunities to generate income from their timber,” the report stated.
If the land from which the wood pellets are harvested is later converted to other uses, any carbon released today by burning the pellets to generate electricity will not be recovered by those trees in the future. This means that the wood pellet industry’s carbon-neutrality claims may depend on price holders in North Carolina, Georgia or Mississippi getting it for their land — something that is hard to predict decades into the future.
Abt says using forests for energy may not be ideal, but it’s a step in the right direction. He says that all solutions to the climate crisis must be on the table. “For wood from the South, I feel comfortable saying it’s better than charcoal in most circumstances,” he says.
In places like the UK, which has no domestic supply of natural gas, there has been a big push to burn wood pellets. In fact, UK-based Drax converted the largest coal-fired power plant in North Yorkshire into a pellet-burning plant in 2013. It now produces enough electricity for 4 million homes, with wood pellets imported from the United States. Drax currently operates 13 pellet plants in the United States and Canada, and is building three more in Arkansas, according to Ali Lewis, president of media and public relations for Drax.