Friday, February 10, 2017
The ecosystem is a delicate and complex thing. Just like politics. Sometimes you think you're doing something good, until unexpected consequences produce the opposite result.
Ethanol is a great example. At first glance it was a great idea; use corn, which is a renewable resource, to produce ethanol which can be mixed into fuel which will burn cleaner and reduce demand for fossil fuels.
Of course, direct conflicts between land for fuel and land for food drove up both food and fuel prices, and other land-use changes, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and nitrogen pollution through the excessive use of fertilizers all had negative impacts on the environment, while climate benefits from replacing petroleum fuels with biofuels like ethanol turned out to be negligible.
Now there is a new environmental push. In recent years European governments have been pushing offering generous subsidies to utility companies that switch to biomass and other renewables instead of dirty, expensive coal.
For formerly coal-dependent countries such as Britain, wood pellets are an especially attractive option because they can be burned in the country's existing coal-fired power plants without significant modifications.
So where do all those wood pellets come from?
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Soaring demand for wood pellets has led to the construction of more than two dozen pellet factories in the Southeast in the past decade, along with special port facilities in Virginia and Georgia where mountains of pellets are loaded onto Europe-bound freighters. European officials promote the trade as part of the fight against climate change. Burning "biomass" from trees instead of coal, they say, means fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It also means thousands of American trees are falling each month in the forests of the mid-Atlantic Seaboard.
But that claim is increasingly coming under challenge. A number of independent experts and scientific studies - including a new analysis to be released this week - are casting doubt on a key argument used to justify the cutting of Southern forests to make fuel. In reality, these scientists say, Europe's appetite for wood pellets could lead to more carbon pollution for decades to come, while also putting some of the East Coast's most productive wildlife habitats at risk.
The controversy is prompting renewed scrutiny of a rapidly growing industry that is reshaping Southern landscapes from coastal Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico. All but nonexistent a decade ago, pellet mills have sprung up in seven states to fill galloping demand for renewable fuels to reduce global dependence on coal and petroleum.