As Louisiana doubles its biomass consumption, Europe cools down with an alternative energy source

Louisiana is turning to green energy, a notable development for a state historically steeped in fossil fuels. But environmental activists are skeptical whether some touted options will be the way forward for the state.

Biomass, renewable organic energy from plants and animals, has been advocated in Europe for several decades as a source of green energy. Wood pellets made from biomass are harvested and manufactured in the southern United States and then transported to countries, much of it in the United Kingdom, which burn them for energy.

The Environment Committee of the European Parliament recently made strong recommendations against burning biomass of forestry. Under the new definitions, most woody biomass would no longer be considered a renewable resource and would not count towards renewable energy incentives or be subsidized under the European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive.

The EU will take the final decision on biomass burning in September. If the decision is passed, the biomass market in Europe will be significantly reduced, leaving booming biomass industries in the southern United States without a key customer base.

As Europe loosens its ties to industry, Louisiana officials want to double down on biomass as a carbon-neutral alternative to oil and gas industries.

In Louisiana, where logging and forestry is a large part of the state’s industry, there are four wood pellet plants. Forest land covers nearly 50 percent of the state, making timber its largest agricultural crop that generates more than $14 million in lumber severance fees each year, according to the Louisiana Forestry Association.

Environmental activist Dean Wilson, executive director of Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, said Louisiana’s biomass industry hasn’t been as exploitative as in other states, but he still has doubts about the practice in general. .

“I’m still very concerned about the idea of ​​using wood for energy because I struggle with lack of enforcement and corruption all the time,” Wilson said. “We risk starting to burn down all the forests on the planet.”

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Lawmaker sees Louisiana at the forefront of biomass

State Representative Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, says sustainable forestry and best management practices in the state would prevent excessive deforestation. McFarland, President of his family’s lumber businessemphasizes that biomass harvesting is environmentally friendly.

House Bill 708, authored by McFarland in the last legislative session, states that bioenergy produced from forest products and agricultural crops is renewable and carbon neutral. The legislature unanimously approved the proposal and the governor signed it into law earlier this month. It comes into effect on August 1.

Under the new law, biomass would include trees left over from harvest, harvested trees deemed to be of poor quality, and trees downed by extreme weather events and natural disasters, among others.

Bagasse, the byproduct of processing sugar cane, would also be included as a source of bioenergy, expanding the range of materials that would be classified as carbon neutral and renewable in the state.

“We’re at the forefront in Louisiana because of all the clean energy technologies that are being pushed to be less dependent on fossil fuels,” McFarland said. “So my goal was to define biomass as it relates to the Renewable Energy Act, but also to demonstrate that we have all of these residues that companies are already using in facilities to make paper, wood, plywood, all these wood and paper products.”

Despite EU recommendations against biomass, McFarland believes there will still be a significant market for biomass in Europe.

“You have two options: you can use fossil fuels or you can use a renewable resource like wood,” McFarland said. “They don’t have the capacity, and neither do we, to generate the electricity and energy to run their country through wind and solar alone.”

Is it really carbon neutral?

Governor John Bel Edwards has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to increasing Louisiana’s renewable energy production, including biomass. He attributes the impact of worsening hurricanes and severe weather to climate change and postulated that green energy is the state’s way out.

Edwards first launched the Climate Initiatives Task Force in 2020, with the goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 2050.

Some efforts highlighted by Edwards have been criticized for not being truly carbon neutral. Biomass, in particular, has drawn international outcry, with critics saying its combustion releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it captures and contributes to deforestation in southern states.

David Carr, a senior lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center specializing in alternative energy and biomass issues, said the UK’s largest electricity supplier, Drax, was particularly harmful in terms of woody biomass consumption. .

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Drax, which has biomass pellet mills in Morehouse and LaSalle Parishes, harvests lumber in Louisiana and Mississippi and ships its products to Europe through the Port of Baton Rouge.

According carbon life cycle reports At the request of the Southern Environmental Law Center and the National Wildlife Federation, emissions from burning wood pellets made at Drax factories will increase carbon pollution in the atmosphere for more than 40 years.

Carr said Drax consumed 8.4 million tonnes of wood pellets in 2021, more than half of which came directly from forests.

“We estimated that Drax’s demand requires the felling of approximately 176 square miles of forest each year,” Carr said. “Burning wood pellets releases more carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal. That’s not even counting the CO2 emissions from harvesting the timber, transporting it to pellet mills, processing it, shipping it to ports, shipping it to the EU and UK.

Despite the decline in this practice, the biomass industry in Louisiana is set to be bolstered by the Governor’s Louisiana Climate Action Plan. An aspect of the plan Launch of the Task Force on Climate Initiatives in February relies on Louisiana biomass for carbon sequestration.

The plan says state agencies for agriculture and economic development should “encourage the use of Louisiana forest products – wood, plywood, paper, wood pellets and biomass – in state capital projects and other construction projects. Mindful of Louisiana’s forest resources and markets , it is recommended that education of foresters, manufacturers and end users begin immediately for this transition to be effective.

But Carr says relying on biomass as a renewable energy source is not a sustainable solution.

“The scientific community, there’s a pretty good consensus that burning trees for energy is a bad idea in terms of increasing climate change,” Carr said. “Makes the situation worse instead of making it better.”

Mary I. Bruner