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Campaign director, Dogwood Alliance
But even if burning wood in biomass facilities were carbon-neutral (and some argue it is actually worse than coal), Southern environmentalists say they still wouldn’t support it because of the damage they’ve seen to forests in the Southeastern U.S. over the last several years.
“It’s ludicrous that we’re chopping down our forests and shipping them to Europe to help meet their energy goals,” said Scot Quaranda, the campaign director for the Dogwood Alliance, a forest watchdog group. “But in the South, on private land, you can basically get away with anything.”
Seth Ginther, a lawyer with the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, insists the pellet industry is not responsible for environmental damage. But he acknowledged that private landowners are free to do what they wish, including cut down whole trees on their land.
And in the South, where nearly 90 percent of land is privately owned, there is no law on the books requiring landowners to grow those trees back.
Dozens of biomass facilities have been built in the South. There are currently two in Louisiana, with eight more planned, according to Quaranda.
With a permit to build roads for logging in a protected area of the Atchafalaya pending approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, Dean Wilson worries he’s just seen the beginning of a decades-long battle to protect the woods he’s been looking after since the 1980s.
Now Wilson is trying to employ the same tactic he used when he found out retailers were selling cypress mulch taken from the Atchafalaya.
Working with European environmentalists from groups such as Birdlife and Friends of the Earth, Wilson is attempting to establish a chain of accountability — from a Louisiana tree to a European light bulb.
He knows regulations are unlikely to become more protective in Louisiana, so he and others are hoping that, by showing Europeans where their supposedly renewable energy is coming from, they can persuade the European Commission's energy division to reconsider how it treats biomass as a renewable energy source. If it does, environmentalists hope that will effectively kill the market for wood pellets in the South.
But this time around, establishing a chain of accountability will be harder for Wilson. When companies were logging for cypress mulch, he could find bags of the mulch branded with company logos in his local Walmart.
Now it’s hard to even find out who owns the massive biomass factories and storage facilities surrounding Baton Rouge. And the wood isn’t going to Walmart — it’s going thousands of miles away to highly guarded power plants in remote parts of Europe.
“With the cypress mulch, we managed to find the trucks and the bags and take pictures,” Wilson said. “This time we don’t have that. It’s going into a black hole.”