Louisiana and Mississippi Forests Being Razed to Make Electricity in Europe

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Traveling highway I-10 over the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge may have noticed two huge white golf ball looking structures at Port Allen, just to the north on the west side of the river crossing. While they do add something to the drab industrial view of refineries, cranes and barges, they foretell a bleak future for southeastern forests. The structures will store up to 80,000 metric tons of wood pellets manufactured by Drax Biomass that will come from Louisiana and Mississippi harvested forests. The wood pellets are destined to be shipped to Europe for burning for generation of electricity. It is eerily appropriate that the company name is the same as Drax the Destroyer, a fictional superhero character appearing in comic books published by Marvel Comics.

At the state, national, and international level, policies encouraging the development of forest biomass energy have generally adopted a view of biomass as a carbon neutral energy source because growing forests would over time re-capture the carbon emitted by wood-burning energy facilities. Recent studies have shown that this assumption is much too simplistic. Given that the supposed intention of burning biomass is to reduce CO2 emissions relative to coal, two principal problems have emerged.

1) In most cases the initial release of carbon into the atmosphere from burning biomass is higher than that of fossil fuels as biomass is less energy dense than fossil fuels. This means that more biomass must be burned and more carbon released to get the same output of heat or electricity.

2) It takes time to re-sequester the carbon released from biomass combustion and to recover the foregone sequestration capacity lost when the biomass is harvested. Depending on how the fuel is harvested and burned CO2 emissions from biomass can be re-sequestered in forests quickly or it may take many decades (Manomet, 2010). For example Louisiana cypress are 90 to 120 years old and it would take that amount of time to re-capture the same amount of carbon burned even if they would grow back which field observation shows does not happen.

Two pellet mills planned for Bastrop LA and Gloster MS each will take in 1.1 million green tons per year. Dogwood Alliance has published photos of industrial yards stacked with whole logs to be ingested by pellet mills in Georgia and North Carolina. The map of six wood pellet manufacturing facilities being constructed in Louisiana and Mississippi tells a scary story of overlapping 100 mile diameter circles around each pellet manufacturing plant, from which huge amounts of forest material would be extracted to feed the pellet mills.

Our concerns are that 1) Only a very small percent of Louisiana native forests remain to support their unique ecosystems. Native forests within trucking distance of the pellet mills would be in extreme danger. 2) Incentives for wood biomass industry growth are based on simplistic and unrealistic assumptions of long term carbon reductions. The world needs reductions in carbon emissions now, not theoretical net emissions reductions that occur over 100 years from now. 3) On a practical level the burning of forest biomass for electricity in Europe makes no sense. You deforest an area in the US, destroying a carbon sink, process and then transport the wood for thousands of miles using diesel fuel and then burn it in Europe, releasing more CO2. And, huge taxpayer supported tax breaks and incentives are given to the companies that will be damaging our forests.

We are calling for re-evaluation of the dollar and carbon economics that have been used to support this destructive scheme.

What can be done?

Most of the forest currently being harvested for wood pellets in Louisiana is upland forest on private land. There is no legal way in Louisiana to restrict forest operations on private land. However construction of roads and earth work for access and cutting of forests in wetlands is subject to US Army Corps of Engineers 404 permitting. As of this writing in January of 2015 we have no evidence of cutting of wetland forests in Louisiana. We are closely watching developments by conducting overflights of sensitive forest areas and we are watching USACE public notices for any sign of permit applications for construction of roads to cut our cypress and hardwood forests.

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