Senate Bill 171 carves out exemption for wood pellet industry, up for a vote today

By: - June 27, 2023 1:02 pm
A photo of wood pellets, which are light brown and about 1 to 2 inches long.

Wood pellets are produced by chopping up whole trees. The pellets are then shipped to Great Britain, where they’re burned for fuel in power plants. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

What appeared to be a routine bill proposed by the Department of Public Safety contains a provision that environmental advocates say gives cover to the wood pellet industry. After passing the House, it is expected to go to the full Senate today at 4 p.m. for concurrence.

Section 2(a) of the bill would exempt trucks carrying “wood residuals” from weight limits, and would redefine that term to to include “wood pellets.” That’s important because the wood pellet industry has falsely claimed they use only wood residuals, such as branches and tree tops, not whole trees.

But the nonprofit international news outlet Mongabay found that Enviva actually uses whole trees from clearcutting operations in North Carolina. Justin Catanoso, a journalist and Wake Forest University professor, wrote the story for Mongabay; he interviewed a whistleblower from inside Enviva, who is quoted as saying. “The company says that we use mostly waste like branches, treetops and debris to make pellets,” the whistleblower told me. “What a joke. We use 100% whole trees in our pellets. We hardly use any waste. Pellet density is critical. You get that from whole trees, not junk.”

Mongabay subsequently confirmed the whistleblower’s account through interviews and observing the operations, including clearcutting in North Carolina.

The Department of Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment about how the language was added.

The industry frames wood pellets as “renewable” because trees can be replanted. However, that definition glosses over the myriad environmental harms resulting from the process. From cradle to grave, wood pellets release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, major drivers of climate change. Enviva uses trees logged from North Carolina forests — some of them hardwoods — which removes some of the valuable “carbon sinks” from the landscape. Trees are carbon sinks because they absorb and store carbon dioxide.

Obtaining the pellets also requires the deforestation of parts of eastern North Carolina, fragmenting wildlife habitats and removing natural flood control provided by large stands of trees. Once the trees arrive at an Enviva plant, they are ground into kibble-size pellets; that process also emits pollutants into the air, the amount of which is regulated by state air permits. The company then transports the pellets by truck or rail to the state ports — again, using carbon-emitting transportation — where they are loaded onto a carbon-emitting ship and hauled across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom. There, in lieu of coal, the UK burns the pellets, which emits carbon dioxide, to fire electricity-generating power plants.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, put forth an amendment on the House floor last week to remove the wood pellet exemption. In part, Harrison was concerned with the road damage from heavy trucks carrying the pellets, the repair of which falls to taxpayers.

There is a current weight limit on trucks carrying wood residuals, Harrison said. “The wood pellet industry does not need this break.”

Rep John Autry, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, supposed the amendment. “There is not a problem with [the wood pellet industry] getting a product to the processing plants,” Autry said on the House floor. “The wood pellet industry is doing just fine without this added incentive.”

The amendment failed by a 40-65 vote. Four Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the amendment: Carla Cunningham, Garland Pierce, Shelly Willingham and Michael Wray.

Enviva did not respond to an email asking about what, if any role they had in crafting the bill language.

Emily Zucchino, director of community engagement for the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental advocacy group critical of the wood pellet industry, told NC Newsline that the bill would “wrongly classify wood pellets as wood residuals, ignoring the reality that entire forests are cut down to feed this industry. The wood pellet industry is trying to use this bill as cover for their rampant destruction of critical forest ecosystems.”

The weight limit exemption is also problematic, Zucchino said, because it could “open the door for dangerous truck traffic on rural roads, and add to the existing wear and tear already caused by these heavy trucks.”

At previous public hearings and demonstrations, many residents who live near Enviva’s plants in North Carolina — Ahoskie, Faison, Garysburg and Hamlet — often complained about debris falling from the company’s trucks, as well as noise and diesel fumes.

Read NC Newsline’s previous coverage of the wood pellet industry.

The original version of this story misspelled Justin Catanoso’s name. It has been corrected.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.