“Here’s a multibillion-dollar question that could help determine the fate of the global climate: If a tree falls in a forest—and then it’s driven to a mill, where it’s chopped and chipped and compressed into wood pellets, which are then driven to a port and shipped across the ocean to be burned for electricity in European power plants—does it warm the planet?
Most scientists and environmentalists say yes: By definition, clear-cutting trees and combusting their carbon emits greenhouse gases that heat up the earth. But policymakers in the U.S. Congress and governments around the world have declared that no, burning wood for power isn’t a climate threat—it’s actually a green climate solution. In Europe, “biomass power,” as it’s technically called, is now counted and subsidized as zero-emissions renewable energy. As a result, European utilities now import tons of wood from U.S. forests every year—and Europe’s supposedly eco-friendly economy now generates more energy from burning wood than from wind and solar combined.”
“Nevertheless, the global transition away from fossil fuels has sparked a boom in the U.S. wood-pellet industry, which has built 23 mills throughout the South over the past decade, and is relentlessly trying to brand itself as a 21st-century green energy business. Its basic argument is that the carbon released while trees are burning shouldn’t count because it’s eventually offset by the carbon absorbed while other trees are growing. That is also currently the official position of the U.S. government, along with many other governments around the world.”
“critics of the industry have suggested an alternative climate strategy: Let trees grow and absorb carbon, then don’t burn them. Deforestation is a major driver of climate change, and the United Nations climate panel has warned that the world needs to end it worldwide to meet the ambitious Paris emissions targets for 2050.”
“European experience shows that general policies to promote renewables can spark a massive shift to wood-burning if biomass isn’t specifically excluded.”
“Enviva’s product would not exist without loggers who clear-cut forests into barren fields with motorized “feller-bunchers,” but the company tries to emphasize that its business is about growing trees as well as killing trees. Enviva requires the landowners who supply its wood to promise to replant their forests, and it uses GPS technology to track and trace every harvest to see if they comply. The company has also committed to help protect 35,000 acres of threatened bottomland hardwood forests and restore 5,000 acres of natural longleaf pine.”
“Jenkins wants the public to see the big picture: Southern forests are growing overall, with more trees being planted than cut, and Enviva’s demand for wood helps encourage landowners to keep their forests as forests. The Southeastern U.S. produces one-sixth of the world’s timber, and less than 4 percent of that harvest ends up as pellets.
“one thing both sides agree on is that it matters what kind of wood ends up in the pellet mills, and what would have happened to that wood otherwise. Policymakers and academics have made all kinds of theoretical assumptions, but it’s not hard to find the reality on the ground.”
“In the decade since Enviva started manufacturing pellets, the Dogwood Alliance has repeatedly exposed gaps between the company’s sustainability rhetoric and its actions. In 2018, for example, a Dutch TV station working with Dogwood followed some logs from another cypress swamp near the Virginia border back to Enviva’s mill. Smith and I returned to the scene three years later, and while the deforested high ground around the swamp had been recolonized by a thick tangle of grasses, bushes and scrub oak, there wasn’t much growing back in the low-lying wetlands, just some sad-looking stumps poking out of the murky water. Smith warns that if governments keep subsidizing the conversion of trees into energy, enormous swaths of environmentally valuable forests around the world will end up looking like that.
Enviva officials say they no longer accept any cypress wood at their mills, or for that matter any other wood harvested from ecologically sensitive areas. They say they now source only 3 percent of their wood from the increasingly rare bottomland hardwood forests that are such culturally resonant symbols of the South—and only from “non-sensitive” ones. But Jenkins admits the company made some questionable sourcing decisions in the past.”
“what’s clear from talking to people in North Carolina, and from a few hours standing outside two Enviva mills watching logging trucks come and go, is that much of the wood that gets pelletized isn’t unmerchantable waste wood. It’s pulpwood—whole pine and hardwood trees as well as wood chips that could otherwise be sold to paper mills. It’s not thick or unblemished enough to turn into telephone poles, houses or high-quality furniture, but much of it is fine for Amazon boxes, toilet paper and the fluff inside diapers; one member of Enviva’s sustainability team described it as Walmart wood rather than Gucci wood. I later spent an hour outside a nearby paper mill watching what kind of wood arrived there, and the trucks were bringing in the same kind of logs they brought to Enviva.
That means Enviva isn’t just cleaning up around the edges of the logging industry—it’s increasing demand for wood in the South. And that means additional trees would need to be logged to feed the paper mills that are losing trees to Enviva; the increased demand for pulpwood will require an increased supply of pulpwood. Even if new trees are planted in their place, many studies suggest they will take decades, and in some cases centuries, to absorb enough carbon to “pay back” the carbon debt from burning the older trees. That’s a problem, because scientists don’t believe the world can wait decades, much less centuries, to cut emissions.”
“2020 was one of the two warmest years on record, tied only with 2016.
According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, in 2020, average temperatures globally were 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.25 degrees Celsius) warmer than preindustrial levels — the point at which scientists agree that human activity, and particularly the burning of fossil fuels, began to accelerate global warming.
In nearly every way, 2020 was a record year for climate-related disasters.
The impacts of the record heat have been felt both around the globe and in the United States. Historic wildfires burned in California, Colorado, Australia, and the Amazonian rainforest. The Atlantic hurricane season produced a record 30 named storms.
Swarms of crop-destroying locusts invaded East Africa, causing devastation to a region already struggling with food insecurity. The Arctic, the area that is currently warming faster than any other place on the planet, saw record declines in ice cover as well as records for how late in the year the ice actually froze.
Even more troubling, 2020’s high temperatures occurred despite the absence of an El Niño event, which typically has the effect of warming the globe; 2016, the other warmest year on record, had an El Niño.”
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of public land in Alaska the size of South Carolina, is one of the last untouched landscapes in the world. The native Gwich’in people — who have lived in harmony with the area’s migratory Porcupine caribou herd for centuries — call the refuge’s vast coastal plain Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, or “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”
But in the past few years, the fate of the refuge’s roughly 19.5 million acres has become rather bleak: Its permafrost is melting rapidly, along with the rest of the Arctic region. The refuge’s coastal plain also remains at risk to oil and gas development, which companies have long had their eye on but have been barred from doing — until now.
Drilling in the US Arctic is what President Trump has longed to do, in hopes of making the US the No. 1 energy producer in the world. And in early December, the administration made a stunning, last-ditch announcement that it will auction off drilling rights in the refuge on January 6 — two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. It’s the administration’s final attempt to turn a profit on Indigenous lands with little regard for the environmental or cultural ramifications.”
“For centuries, the Arctic refuge — particularly the coastal plain — has been central to Alaska Natives’ way of life. The ancestral name of the plain refers to the calving grounds for the caribou, whose migratory path still guides the Gwich’in and other Indigenous people today. If oil drilling rights in the sacred land are sold, Alaskan Natives fear it would disrupt the caribou’s migratory patterns along with other wildlife. It would also interrupt the way the Gwich’in people prepare for sacred harvest as their ancestors have thousands of years ago.
“This is not just a Gwich’in issue; there are a lot of Alaska Natives who depend on the caribou and the animals that migrate there,” Bernadette Demientieff, a Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in and the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, told Vox. “Our identity as Gwich’in is not up for negotiation and our culture is not up for sale. We will fight this every step of the way.”
Already, the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline on the west end of the national refuge, which has had multiple hazardous oil spills in the region, provides a stark reminder of the fossil fuel industry’s menacing presence on Indigenous lands. Fossil fuel operations emit tons of greenhouse gases that contribute to the planet’s warming temperatures. And to do so on Indigenous lands in the Arctic — already dubbed ground zero for the climate crisis — only adds insult to injury for communities most vulnerable to climate change, like the Gwich’in people.”
“On Wednesday, Biden kicked off the process to undo Trump’s prolific environmental rollbacks — totaling nearly 100 during his presidency — and jump-start new climate regulation. One executive order covers a broad range of policies including methane regulations, energy efficiency standards for appliances, fuel efficiency standards for cars, and blocking the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It will take months for agencies to review and rescind Trump’s environmental decisions, but tackling all these regulations at once shows the new administration’s commitment to climate action.”
“The US will have to play catch-up once it rejoins the Paris agreement. Countries are supposed to impose stricter targets on themselves every five years, with the goal of limiting emissions to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. Several top emitters, including the European Union, submitted new targets on schedule last month, five years after the first round of targets in 2015.
Biden says he will reestablish the US as a global climate leader, implying that the US will set a new, ambitious 2030 target. But years of inaction under Trump have delayed US emissions reductions, making Biden’s job more difficult.”
“new legislation for investment and standards will be essential to achieve the rapid emissions cuts the climate emergency calls for. With the narrowest Democratic majority in the Senate, climate legislation will be dependent on the will of the most conservative members of the party, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), and the intricacies of the budget reconciliation process”
“The new regulations require utilities to clean up contaminants if they are found at high enough levels beyond the boundaries of their plant sites. By extending those boundaries through land purchases, Georgia Power could push back the day it has to deal with its legacy of pollution”
“Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft said in a recent statement that the purchased properties were intended for use as a construction buffer while the company closes its unlined ponds, a lengthy process that includes pumping water out of the disposal site and burying the remaining coal ash in place. He did not respond to direct questions about whether the purchased land would help the company delay cleanup costs.
He noted that the company, a subsidiary of the Southern Company, the nation’s second-largest energy provider, has hired experts to monitor test wells positioned around the ash ponds for signs of groundwater contamination. Based on the results of those tests, he added, the company “has identified no impact to drinking water.””
“On Dec. 22, 2008, more than a billion gallons of a toxic slurry of coal ash and water breached a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant about 40 miles west of Knoxville. The wave — roughly five times the volume of liquid spilled by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico two years later — tore up railways, toppled power lines, knocked a home off its foundation and caked the Emory River in a thick, gray sludge.”
“Utilities produce over 100 million tons of coal ash annually, according to the EPA, making it the nation’s second-largest source of industrial waste after household garbage.
Coal ash is the fine residue left when coal is burned to produce power. The ash contains contaminants associated with long-term health risks, including damage to the kidney (from mercury), stomach (from boron) and nervous system (from arsenic). To dispose of it, utilities can either transport the waste to a landfill with a protective liner on the bottom or mix it with water in an ash pond without a layer underneath.”
“Kaufman and his co-authors propose an alternative design framework for a carbon tax: a near-term to net zero (NT2NZ) approach.
In a nutshell, rather than asking what the optimal carbon price is in some econo-metaphysical sense, the approach begins by asking: Given other policies in place and a reasonable set of assumptions, what price on carbon is required to drive emissions to net zero on schedule?”
“The Ohio case, while extreme, is not an aberration. Corrupt electric utilities using ratepayer funds to roll back climate policy is not limited to Ohio. As I described in Short Circuiting Policy, it is an unfortunately common pattern.
Last week, the Illinois utility ComEd — whose parent company is Exelon — admitted to engaging in bribery and agreed to pay a $200 million fine. It’s very likely that another speaker, Michael Madigan, is involved in that case — the Illinois governor has already called on him to resign.
In Arizona, which I examine in my book, the FBI similarly launched an investigation into an elected official over its ties to a private electric utility, Arizona Public Service. As we now know, Arizona Corporation Commission Chair Gary Pierce met privately with then-Arizona Public Service CEO Don Brandt numerous times. The utility also funneled over $700,000 through a dark money group to Pierce’s son’s failed bid for secretary of state.
Arizona Public Service also secretly spent tens of millions on campaigns to elect its own regulators in order to secure favorable decisions, including clean energy rollbacks and generous rate hikes. In 2018 alone, it spent upward of $40 million to successfully block a clean energy ballot initiative. The new CEO, Jeff Guldner, played a key role in directing the utility’s dark political spending.
And this isn’t a new strategy. Throughout the 1990s, electric utilities including FirstEnergy and Arizona Public Service were key funders of climate denial.”
“The dogged folks at the Energy and Policy Institute — a utility watchdog that has turned up real-time facts in most of these cases — paint a clear picture for those paying attention: Most electric utilities are resisting the clean energy transition and using corruption to do it.”