While COVID-19 and the upcoming presidential election dominate the headlines, a global climate crisis continues. Regions across the United States have again been setting new heat records and many places are ablaze.
Averting climate disaster isn’t going to be easy, and if we don’t save our forests, it may prove impossible. Unfortunately, Georgia forests are, literally, in the line of fire as the result of a planned expansion of the woody biomass industry in our state.
Right now, 12,000 acres of forested land per year are at risk from a new plant in South Georgia where a group from Texas is hoping to build a pellet plant in Adel.
They plan to produce 500,000 tons of wood pellets per year for shipment to the European Union. Production of such a volume will require cutting nearly 12,000 wooded acres each year across a sourcing radius of about 75 miles. But we can put a stop to it if we act quickly.
In just the last few years, the Southeastern U.S. has become Europe’s primary source for whole trees turned into wood pellets, often referred to as “biomass.” These pellets are burned for energy in the EU, where the biomass industry stays afloat with massive government subsidies as part of a “renewable energy” plan.
Now, the industry wants to further expand its piece of the energy-generation pie to the U.S. market and they’re counting on the government to help them compete with true renewables like wind and solar.
They are also counting on local government officials to turn a blind eye to the negative impact biomass plants have on communities the industry always targets — poor, rural and typically populated by people of color.
These are known as environmental justice communities and they are overwhelmingly where polluting industries of all stripes locate their plants and their pollution. As a result, these communities have far higher rates of asthma, cancer and other serious, life-shortening illnesses.
It takes 50-100 years for natural forest to regenerate completely. Meanwhile, rain on land without forest runs off faster, carries more sediment and pollution, damaging fishing and wildlife. Floods also become more likely.
For this particular plant, the Suwannee Riverkeeper noted that the 75-mile sourcing radius around Adel would reach to Tallahassee and Albany, as well as the Red Hills around Thomasville. It would impact all the Suwannee River Basin in Georgia, much of the Flint River Basin, and more.
The viability of the biomass industry is based upon a number of fallacies:
1) “Biomass is ‘renewable.’” It isn’t. It took decades if not centuries for our forests to grow. Even if all the harvested trees are replanted (and there is no guarantee they will be) research shows that older trees store more carbon and that older forests are less vulnerable to climate change than their younger counterparts. Cutting down our forests for Europe’s energy needs is downright destructive. (Brienen et al. 2015, Lan Qie et al. 2017)
2) “Burning wood pellets is ‘carbon neutral.’” The truth is, when all factors are considered, unit per unit, biomass energy releases more CO2 than coal (not to mention particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and other harmful chemicals). (Davis et al. 2020)
3) “Biomass is competitive in the energy market.” It isn’t. The industry, whether it is the production of pellets or the production of energy, can’t survive without taxpayer-funded subsidies. In our state, the biomass industry is pushing public service commissioners to be considered a “renewable energy” source. Yet studies show that solar panels could produce a significantly larger amount of electricity than wood burning and with incredibly low CO2 emissions. (https://rachelcarsoncouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Bad-Business-Web.pdf)
4) “Biomass will bring economic vitality to the area.” The truth is that biomass plants get massive tax incentives or subsidies, thereby decimating the local tax base and undermining other economic development opportunities. The planned plant in Adel, Ga., would be given a 10-year tax holiday during which they will pay no taxes on their property. Additionally, in areas with healthy forests, outdoor recreation brings many more sustainable jobs than biomass plants ever will. (Wisner et al. 2020/ the information about the 10-year tax holiday was provided at the Sept. 8 Adel City Council meeting in response to a question by Dr. Treva Gear.)
Georgia’s forests provide shelter, clean air and water, food and recreation. They stand as a buffer against the worst effects of coastal flooding and provide an estimated $20.1 billion annually in protection from extreme weather events.
They also serve as a massive and critical carbon sink — a vital defense we need against climate change. Burning them will dump this stored C02 back into the atmosphere and eliminate living trees, the only cheap, clean and existing “technology” that actually filters CO2 out of the atmosphere.
The people of Adel and surrounding areas are uniquely positioned to stop this environmental and community health disaster from occurring. The Adel City Council will vote on the company’s rezoning request — to change the current Agricultural zoning to Heavy Industrial — at their Sept. 21 meeting.
We urge everyone to contact the Adel City Council immediately and tell them to vote no on that request. We need to let all elected representatives know that we will hold them accountable for the destruction this industry will sow.
Vicki Weeks, Georgia state coordinator, Dogwood Alliance
Dr. Michael G. Noll, president, Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy