Last week, President-elect Joe Biden nominated Michael Regan, who now heads North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the top issues he grappled with in North Carolina could also be prominent at the EPA as the Biden administration tries to reduce carbon emissions: burning wood for energy, which could lead to climate doom if not properly regulated.
Regan’s record at DEQ has garnered praise from policymakers and activists alike for creating his agency’s first Environmental Justice and Equity Board in 2018, as well as helping win settlements to clean up PFAS and coal ash pollution. But on biomass, it’s more mixed.
Burning wood pellets for energy has been touted as a way to reduce emissions by the industry. Trees planted to replace those chopped down for wood pellets, in theory, suck up carbon dioxide, making the process carbon neutral. But research shows that burning wood for energy is highly polluting, and can be emit more carbon than coal. The Southeast is the heart of the industry’s U.S. hub.
While Regan helmed DEQ, the state became the world’s largest exporter of biomass fuel, due mostly to a single wood pellet producer, Enviva Energy. The department approved every single permit the industry requested under his watch. Enviva has sited wood pellet plants near majority Indigenous, Black, and Latinx neighborhoods on the state’s low-income eastern tier.
“These are communities that already have so many challenges with regard to pollution impacting health,” Donna Chavis, senior fossil fuels campaigner for the advocacy group Friends of the Earth and Elder of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said. “For instance, where the new plant is supposed to be going, there are already over 100 polluting sites...located in the area nearby, and there’s a history of water and air pollution, and so people have high rates of respiratory disease.”
Last year, another developer, Active Energy, proposed building another wood pellet plant in the majority-Indigenous and Black city of Lumberton. Active Energy has played dirty with environmental regulations in North Carolina, catching a lawsuit from the Southern Environmental Law Center for starting construction on its Lumberton project before even applying for a required water permit, and illegally discharging contaminated wastewater into the Lumber River. Apart from the issues the litigation details, the company also claimed its emissions estimates were based on smokestack tests from comparable Enviva facilities, and the DEQ didn’t follow up to request the results of the firm’s own tests to verify their reports. Chavis said the department should have done so, especially since it has the authority to revoke permits if it finds that applications for permits contain inaccurate information. Instead, DEQ issued an air permit in August.
“They could have been more aggressive,” she said.
But though the agency could have done more, Regan’s options to quell the impacts of wood pellet production were severely limited by the state’s legislature. North Carolina law only requires biomass fuel plants to obtain air and water quality permits to be built. The industry is exempt from North Carolina’s State Environmental Protection Act standards, which limit emissions from other polluting sources in frontline communities based on cumulative impacts of other industries.
“The requirements for wood pellet facilities are very technical, and if they meet air quality and water quality legal standards, well, you don’t have much ability as a regulator in North Carolina not to issue those permits,” Derb Carter, director of the North Carolina Southern Environmental Law Center, said. “There’s little in place to refuse to issue them based on issues with environmental justice.”
Developers have also claimed to only produce their pellets from waste wood, or pieces of wood that aren’t being used for other purposes, like sawdust from sawmills, which makes it seem like their process is sustainable from a conservation perspective. In reality, Enviva has been caught purchasing freshly cut trees. But 90% of forests in North Carolina are on unregulated, privately-owned land, so there’s little DEQ can do to protect trees from the sector.
Regan nodded to the outdoors in his introduction as Biden’s pick to run EPA, saying “I developed a deep love and respect for the outdoors and our natural resources.” At the federal level, his abilities to regulate the biomass industry and protect the natural world will be much more vast. The Trump EPA ruled in 2018 that wood pellets are considered a carbon-neutral form of energy. But the door is open for Biden’s EPA to overturn that rule, and science would be on its side.
The EPA could remove wood burning from its list of carbon-neutral fuel sources, disincentivizing states to give contracts to wood pellet facilities. It could also cut off the industry’s access to federal subsidies and tax credits set aside for renewable sources and push states not to include biomass in their Renewable Portfolio Standards, which dictate what energy sources are considered sustainable—a move which Regan’s DEQ already accomplished, but most other states with the policies have not.
It’s a high stakes decision. Continuing to include biomass in the category of sustainable energy could lock the U.S. into years of polluting energy use. Though the biomass industry justifies its carbon emissions by pointing to trees’ regenerative abilities, in reality, studies show that biomass projects’ carbon debts can take more than 90 years to pay off. That means we could continue to use a planet-warming power source while destroying forests—which are one of our most essential sources of carbon sequestration—at a time when we must rapidly phase out of greenhouse gas pollution and conserve trees.
“The scientists are telling us we have a very short term deadline to reduce carbon emissions, like a decade,” Carter said. “So from that perspective, this makes no sense at all.”
Scott Quaranda, communications director for the forest protection nonprofit the North Carolina Dogwood Alliance, said he also hopes to see Regan’s EPA work with states to purchase more land and bring it under public control.
“If they do that, especially in Southern states where so much of the forestry is privately owned, then regulators will have a lot more ability to protect it,” he said.
In addition, the EPA could expand pollution regulations to cover biomass facilities, forcing them to meet more stringent air and water quality standards and thereby making it harder for them to obtain permits and be built in the first place.
Moving to protect forests—especially ones full of old growth trees and ones in wetlands, which have both been decimated by wood pellet producers in North Carolina—is also a means of climate change adaptation and mitigation. North Carolina, for instance, has seen billions of dollars in damage from hurricane flooding in recent years. Had the forests that once surrounded the area’s rivers not been chopped down, it may have fared better. The EPA could produce more research to illustrate the importance of these functions, and work with the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture to develop policies to preserve them from the biomass industry’s chainsaws.
“I’ll be really looking to see if the EPA is ready to get down and dirty with forests, because there’s trying to come up with crazy machines to suck carbon out of atmosphere,” Quaranda said, referring to moves to develop carbon capture and storage technology. “But trees do that naturally, so the EPA could really be looking at how we can expand our carbon reserves across the landscape by protecting them.”
In the coming years, the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Carter expects that the federal government will face massive pressure from the biomass industry to regulate it as loosely as possible. That’s especially true because currently, much of the wood fuel produced in the U.S., including in North Carolina, are exported to the European Union, which is currently reviewing its designation of biomass as a clean energy source.
“If the EU stops buying up so many wood pellets, the industry is going to be on the lookout for a new market,” he said. “So they may be looking to get the U.S. on board to buy more fuel.”
Chavis opposed Regan’s nomination to head the EPA, but she remains hopeful that he won’t be vulnerable to these attempts.
“As for the environmental justice community in North Carolina, yes, there’s disappointment, but we remain hopeful,” she said.