Conservation news

Will new US EPA head continue his opposition to burning forests for energy?

  • Under President Donald Trump the U.S. made moves toward legally enshrining the burning of forest biomass to make energy on an industrial scale as a national policy. That same policy has been embraced by the United Kingdom and European Union, helping them move toward a target of zero carbon emissions — at least on paper.
  • However, the carbon neutrality label given to the burning of woody biomass to make energy, first proclaimed under the Kyoto Protocol, then grandfathered into the Paris Climate Agreement, has been found by science over the last decade to be more accurately characterized as a risky carbon accounting loophole.
  • Current science says that carbon neutrality achieved from burning wood pellets would take 50-100 years to achieve, time the world doesn’t have to slash its emissions. Further, burning woody biomass is inefficient, and dirtier than coal.
  • Michael S. Regan, President Biden’s choice for EPA head, wrestled with the problem of producing wood pellets for use as energy while leading North Carolina’s environmental agency. Now he’ll be contending with the issue on a national and possibly global scale. His past views on the topic are laid out in this story in detail.
Enviva’s Sampson County North Carolina forest biomass facility. Wood pellets made there are mostly exported to the UK and EU where they are burned to make energy in retrofitted coal burning power plants. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

“I don’t see a future in wood pellets,” Michael S. Regan told me when we spoke late in 2019 while he was serving as head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Today, Regan is President Joe Biden’s choice for Environmental Protection Agency administrator; he’s very likely to be confirmed this week by the Senate with bipartisan support. And his words, if put into practice, could have a profound impact on the future of forest biomass — the burning of trees, turned into wood pellets, to make energy on a vast industrial scale — bringing about a major shift in U.S. and potentially international energy policy.

With his administration not even a month old, President Biden is moving swiftly to regain a global leadership role for the United States in climate change mitigation. A portion of that effort could revolve around the U.S. ability to influence international and United Nations policy regarding biomass-for-energy.

Under Donald Trump, biomass burning got favorable treatment. But now, under Biden and Regan, it seems plausible that the nation will follow the lead of current science, which has clearly debunked an earlier mistaken claim of biomass burning’s carbon neutrality.

This is what Michael Regan, 44 and an eastern North Carolina native, said on the topic in a late 2019 interview, long before his EPA appointment (parts of that interview were featured in a series of articles in the Raleigh News & Observer): “I am not shy about saying [that Democratic N.C.] Gov. [Roy] Cooper and I believe in a clean energy, renewable energy future for the state that has the lowest emissions profile,” he said. “That’s going to be driven by technology, business models, new ways of thinking about things. I don’t see a future in wood pellets.”

At the time, Cooper set a goal to reduce North Carolina’s emissions by 70% by 2030 over a 2005 baseline, and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

Regan added that he saw no role for biomass in North Carolina’s energy future, even though his state is among the nation’s largest producers of wood pellets, exporting some 2.5 million tons annually, mostly to the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU). There the pellets are burned in former coal-fired power stations to make electricity; biomass accounts for nearly 60% of the EU’s “renewable” energy mix.

It’s estimated that 4 percent of US energy comes from a mix of woody biomass and biofuels (ethanol). Importantly, North Carolina’s forest biomass industry alone requires 60,000 acres of woodland annually to make the 2.5 million tons of wood pellets it sends abroad, according to the Dogwood Alliance, an NGO.

Southeast U.S. forest biomass plants exporting wood pellets to Europe. Image courtesy of Southern Environmental Law Center.

Pellet maker: What’s good for Europe is good for North Carolina

In 2019 hearings for Gov. Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan, overseen by Regan’s environmental department, Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet producer with four plants statewide, lobbied for a central role in North Carolina’s energy future for forest biomass.

Arguing that what’s good for Europe should be good for North Carolina, Jennifer Jenkins, Enviva’s chief sustainability officer, told state officials, “By recognizing the greenhouse-gas reductions offered by biomass, North Carolina would join governments around the world … that have recognized that when emissions from biomass are offset by carbon sequestration of growing trees, stack emissions from biomass are zero.”

But that corporate argument is undermined by current scientific knowledge. A flaw in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (grandfathered into the Paris Climate Agreement), which mistakenly classified biomass as “renewable” and on par with “zero-carbon” wind and solar, created a United Nations-tolerated carbon-neutral loophole that has economically fueled the explosive growth of the wood pellet market and forestry industry profits.

The soaring demand to burn wood to produce energy has led to documented clearcutting of forests in the U.S. Southeast, western Canada and Eastern Europe at a time when forests are considered the most effective way of pulling heat-trapping carbon from the atmosphere and locking it into their limbs, trunks, roots and soils.

What Enviva’s Jenkins did not say in her optimistic N.C. testimony, but what Regan — an EPA veteran of both the Clinton and Bush administrations — clearly understands is that carbon neutrality for wood pellets is only achieved in 50-100 years at best, when newly planted trees have regrown; that’s according to 10 years of scientific studies.

And, most importantly, neither North Carolina, nor the U.S. or world, has the luxury of waiting five to 10 decades to tackle the climate crisis, according to a report released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018.

In the early spring of 2019, investigators tracked logging trucks coming from a mature hardwood forest and going to Enviva’s Northampton, North Carolina facility. The clearcut, seen here, was located in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin, alongside Sandy Creek, feeding into the Pamlico Sound of North Carolina. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.
A loaded logging truck pulls into the Enviva biomass wood pellet plant in Northampton, North Carolina. Under North Carolina law, Regan’s N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had no power to regulate clearcutting on private lands where most forest biomass is harvested. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance / NRDC.

Better to leave forests intact

When North Carolina’s Clean Energy Plan was released in September 2019, Enviva’s lobbying was soundly rejected. Instead, the state plan excoriates the industry: “The wood pellet industry does not contribute to NC’s energy generation portfolio and does not advance NC’s clean energy economy. The wood pellets harvested from NC increase the state’s carbon output during logging, processing and transportation.”

On the issue of carbon neutrality, North Carolina is equally blunt: “We acknowledge the science regarding [biomass] carbon neutrality and accounting methods are contentious issues. Biomass production releases carbon into the atmosphere at a faster pace than if those forests were left intact.”

Europe’s leading climate scientists have been making that very same argument to EU and UK officials for several years — to little avail. Global pellet production and burning is rapidly expanding, with industry forecasts set to explode by 2027.  That growth is spurred by a UK and EU that continue to claim on-paper emission reductions, underestimated by 10-30%, depending on how much a country depends on burning woody biomass for energy and heat.

That means 10-30% more carbon going into the atmosphere and contributing to worsening heat waves, extreme storms and drought, melting ice caps and rising seas.

In 2017, demand for industrial wood pellets exceeded 14 million tons. By 2027, demand is expected to more than double to over 36 million tons. The biggest increases in biomass burning by 2027 are expected in Europe, Japan and South Korea, with newly targeted source forests in Brazil, Mozambique and Australia. Image courtesy of Environmental Paper Network.

Whether Regan’s EPA, guided by his unambiguous position on biomass in North Carolina, can influence international and United Nations policy that labels biomass as carbon neutral remains to be seen.

But observers like Danna Smith, executive director of the North Carolina-based Dogwood Alliance, an international forest preservation advocacy group, are hopeful Regan’s views will guide Biden EPA initiatives and reverse the regulatory trends set in motion during the Trump Administration. At the very least, they say, the U.S. could set a strong global example.

The Obama Administration wrestled unsuccessfully with its own biomass carbon neutrality designation, mainly due to bipartisan political pressure from forestry states such as Maine and Washington. Under Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in 2018 issued a policy statement declaring the burning of woody biomass carbon neutral in the U.S. However, Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, never developed the regulations to implement the policy.

The United Kingdom’s Drax power station, one of the world’s largest users of woody biomass for energy production. The uncounted carbon from wood pellets burned at Drax flows into the atmosphere, adding to climate change. Photo credit: DECCgovuk on VisualHunt / CC BY-ND.

Will Biden reject U.S. biomass burning?

On Jan. 21, 2021, the Biden White House issued a memo to the EPA freezing all pending regulations, including the Trump EPA’s intention to create the same carbon neutrality loophole in the U.S. for burning biomass to make energy that exists in the UK and EU.

The hope now among environmentalists is that this pause will be followed by a U.S. rejection of biomass carbon neutrality.

“The big thing Michael Regan did here [in North Carolina] was to specifically reject wood pellets and biomass as a pathway for the state’s clean energy future,” Danna Smith notes. “He questioned the carbon neutrality, found it to be suspect and said that it should be challenged at the international level. That was a pretty strong statement coming out of a state where the wood pellet industry is ground zero and expanding rapidly.…

“As Michael Regan goes into the EPA, we would fully expect him to carry that same position forward at a national level.”

Smith added, however, that she believed Regan could have done more to slow the expansion of the wood pellet industry in North Carolina, not only because of its impact on forests, ecosystems and coastal climate resiliency, but also because of air quality problems it created for the poor, rural counties in which the pellet plants operate.

Regan addressed this concern in the 2019 interview. He explained that he had taken over the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality in 2017 under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s four-year term. Similar to the EPA under Trump, McCrory had directed the department to relax state environmental and air quality regulations as a means of erasing barriers to business growth, even giving permits to Enviva’s pellet-making plants without regard for the U.S. Clean Air Act, according to environmental critics.

Regan was pragmatic in regard to the air pollution vs. the carbon emissions problem: “In coming into this [N.C.] position [in 2017], I took the approach of wanting to understand what the impact is in fact versus fiction.… I quickly understood that these Enviva facilities were permitted just like any wood manufacturing facility. There are permits that govern the facilities’ operation from an air quality impact. And then there is the separate issue of the products that they produce, where they are going and what they are being used for.

“So I would say that in looking at the permitting of these [N.C.] facilities… we have ratcheted down [on air quality regulations, but] Enviva has gone above and beyond what we could require from a legal or regulatory standpoint to ensure that we don’t have any exacerbations of those emissions. I mean, the regulations are performing in a way that are protective of air quality for those regions of the state.”

Michael S. Regan, Biden Cabinet portrait. Regan received bipartisan support in his Senate confirmation hearing on February 3, 2021 and seems assured of confirmation. Image courtesy of the White House.

Regan: biomass has a limited future

Regan noted positively that Enviva was installing the latest pollution-reduction technology at its pellet-making plants in 2019, at a time when it was requesting that its facilities be allowed to expand production capacity dramatically. Regan called that gain for air quality a win for public health. As to Enviva’s impact on the state’s forests and on climate change, he explained to me that, his regulatory hands were tied by state law:

“It is impossible for us [as N.C. state regulators] to tell a private landowner what he or she can do with the product on their land, whether it’s a crop or a forest. So that presents a significant challenge. I am not shy about saying Gov. Cooper and I believe in a clean energy, renewable energy future for the state that has the lowest [carbon] emissions profile. That’s going to be driven by technology, business models, new ways of thinking about things. I don’t see a future in wood pellets.

“Once you really start to see improved battery storage and solar, grid modernization, increased efficiency, in the next four or five years,” he added, “it’s very hard for me, from a business model standpoint, to understand how a European market is going to continue to go to wood pellets when it will be more cost-effective and cleaner to choose other forms of energy generation.”

Experts who study forest biomass-as-energy say that Regan’s optimism may be justified in the EU and UK many years out. But in the near-term, neither will likely be able to meet energy demand and hit their Paris Agreement targets and legally required emission reduction goals without exploiting the carbon-neutral loophole now allowed by the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive for burning biomass.

In talking with Regan in 2019, I asked him about the reality, and seeming contradiction, of North Carolina saying it will never burn wood pellets for energy, while allowing more and more of its forests to be pelletized to be burned for energy overseas.

“The facts are that this is an international issue, okay?,” he replied. “So I recognize the limitations of North Carolina and the international gravity of the decision that needs to be made. I think the signal we are sending to the international community is we have some constraints in what we determine about this [wood pellet] industry. Within those constraints, we have put some of the toughest controls [in place] to be sure the facilities don’t impact our citizens…

“So I would argue, and this is what we’re trying to do in North Carolina, is the policies must match where the markets in technologies are going in order for you to think about a viable future. When you look at where that’s going, it’s clean, it’s efficient. It’s sort of backwards-looking to think about the utilization of wood pellets and biomass as a [climate] solution years out.”

A forest biomass plant in the U.S. Southeast. Image courtesy of the Dogwood Alliance.

Unprecedented support and coordination

Observers note that before Regan can focus on national biomass regulation, he must — as he did in Republican-ruled North Carolina — repair damage to an agency that under Trump worked relentlessly to undo protections to air, water, ecosystems and species.

After that, reducing emissions in the transportation and energy sectors will likely be top priorities. But when Regan does take up forest biomass, he too will run into partisan political obstacles, especially resistance from the forestry industry and its allies in Congress from red and blue states.

“There are many issues that he will have to contend with, such as the oil and gas industries and agriculture,” agreed Stan Meiburg, acting EPA deputy administrator under President Obama, and now director of the Sustainability Graduate Program at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he and I are faculty members.

“All those entities are not going to abandon the pursuit of their interests just because President Biden has made climate change a priority. And as administrations in both parties have learned, the politics of biomass and biofuels have turned out to be really gnarly.”

Still, Meiburg is confident that Regan has both the experience and temperament to effectively right the ship of EPA. And when it comes to biomass policy, Regan may enjoy something no other EPA administrator has had in the past — overlapping support from many agencies, including Interior, Transportation, Defense and Agriculture, all of which Biden has directed to make climate action a coordinated priority.

“For Michael, that’s a very different starting point than any of his predecessors,” said Meiburg, who spent 39 years at EPA.

Justin Catanoso is a regular contributor to Mongabay and a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.

Banner image: Michael S. Regan during his time as Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Courtesy of N.C. Governor’s Office.

Related audio: Reporter Justin Catanoso discussed these issues further on a subsequent episode of the Mongabay Newscast:

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