How the EU's green energy drive is hitting US forests

30 January 2014

To reduce carbon emissions many coal-burning power plants in Europe are starting to import wood pellets from the US. Critics say the new trend is putting wildlife at risk and wasting fuel.

Derb Carter is a keen bird watcher. It's been his hobby since his childhood and it's now a part of his job too, in his role as a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

When walking through the low-lying countryside on the banks of the Roanoke River, in North Carolina in the US, he's circumspect about the future of these old forests though.

"Someone needs to protect these places and the animals that depend on them," he says. "In addition to birds, we have bears, turkeys, herons, eagles and egrets here."

But, the area is now under threat from a growing wood pellet manufacturing industry here, he says.

"We've protected some of the land in refuges and state parks," Carter told DW. "But most of it is still privately owned, and that's where the pellet mills will get their wood."

A worldwide industry

Wood pellet manufacturing is a growing industry in the US. The trend is due to old coal power plants, especially in Europe, being refitted to burn wood pellets to reduce emissions. In Europe, reducing carbon emissions from power plants form part of the bloc's new climate goals for 2030.

Supporters argue that the small wood pellets release much less carbon than coal when burned. And, because new trees can be planted when older ones are cut, wood is considered a renewable resource.

Enviva is the largest maker of wood pellets in the US. At its Northampton production facility, also in North Carolina, it produces some 500,000 tons of wood pellets a year. According to the company's website, most of this product is shipped straight to Europe.

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