Some organizations continue to sound an alarm about the impacts of biomass energy on sustainable forestry in the Southern United States. Using the export of wood pellets to Europe as a whipping post, they have argued that new biomass opportunities threaten to decimate southern forests and the carbon benefits they provide. Because we take any sustainability concern seriously, we decided to investigate.
Partnering with the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, we commissioned an independent study to look at what government and marketplace data reveal about the impact of the pellet trade on southern forests and wood markets. The results speak for themselves:
- Annual removals from southern forests to support existing pulpwood and sawtimber markets constitute about 3.3 percent of the total forest inventory.
- Only 2.4% of these removals support the production of export pellets. That means about eight one hundredths of one percent of the South's forest inventory is used to support Europe's wood pellet demand.
- Experts anticipate that future forest removals to support export pellets to Europe will increase to about three tenths of one percent of the forest inventory annually.
- No forest products mills are closing as a result of the pellet trade, and price fluctuations for wood are similar in markets with and without pellet mills, suggesting that pellets are not threatening market stability.
Bottom line? It is difficult to argue with a straight face that removing three tenths of one percent of the forest inventory annually threatens forest sustainability or the carbon benefits of forests and forest products.
The fact is that biomass markets are small but important, and they are not a threat to sustainability. In fact, they help drive sustainability. As USDA's Chief Economist, Rob Johansson, put it, “Vibrant markets for wood materials raise the value of forest lands and encourage investment, regrowth and expansion.” Markets are good for forests, the marketplace and the carbon benefits they provide. They are a principal reason our forests offset 13% of the nation's CO2 emissions annually.
History shows that forests in the U.S. South are among the most sustainable and carbon beneficial in the world because of rather than in spite of new and emerging markets, like biomass energy. We should remember that when we hear alarmists claims that biomass or any other wood market threatens sustainability. And if we ever need reassurance, we can simply look at the data. It speaks for itself.