Morehouse BioEnergy

The Morehouse BioEnergy wood pellet plant near Bastrop, LA. Louisiana leaders are promoting investment in biomass while its largest consumer, nations in Europe, consider moving away from the alternative fuel source.

Louisiana is pivoting toward green energy, a notable move for a state historically steeped in fossil fuels. But environmental activists are skeptical about whether some options being touted will be the state’s way forward.

Biomass, renewable organic energy that comes from plants and animals, has been championed in Europe for the past few 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 to the United Kingdom, that burn them for energy.

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

The EU will make the final decision on biomass burning in September. If the decision goes through, the biomass market in Europe will be significantly reduced, leaving the booming biomass industries in the southern U.S. without a key customer base.

(Editor’s Note: Drax Group built its first Arkansas wood pellet plant in Leola last year. Another Drax facility is under construction in Russellville.)

While Europe is loosening ties to the industry, Louisiana officials want to double down on biomass as a carbon-neutral alternative to the oil and gas industries.

In Louisiana, where logging and forestry make up a large chunk of state industry, there are four wood pellet plants. Forestland covers almost 50% of the state, making timber its biggest agricultural crop that generates more than $14 million in timber severance taxes each year, according to the Louisiana Forestry Association.

Environmental activist Dean Wilson, executive director for 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 power because I fight lack of enforcement and corruption all the time,” Wilson said. “There’s the risk we’re going to start burning all the forests on the planet.”

State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, says sustainable forestry and best management practices in the state would prevent excessive deforestation. McFarland, president of his family’s timber business, insists that harvesting biomass is environmentally friendly.

House Bill 708, which McFarland authored this past legislative session, declares bioenergy produced from forest products and agricultural harvests renewable and carbon neutral. The Legislature unanimously approved the proposal, and the governor signed it into law earlier this month. It goes into effect Aug. 1.

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

Bagasse, the byproduct of sugarcane processing, 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 are at the forefront in Louisiana because of all the clean energy technologies that’s 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 these residuals that companies are already using in the facilities to manufacture paper, wood, plywood, all these wood and paper products.”

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

“You have two options: you can utilize fossil fuels or you can utilize a renewable resource like timber,” McFarland said. “They don’t have the ability, nor do we, to generate the power and energy to run their country just off of wind and solar.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to increasing Louisiana’s production of renewable energy, including biomass. He attributes the impact of worsening hurricanes and severe weather events to climate change and has posited 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 put forward by Edwards have come under fire for not actually being carbon neutral. Biomass, in particular, has sparked international outcry, with critics saying that burning it releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than is captured and contributes to deforestation in southern states.

David Carr, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in alternative energy and biomass issues, said the UK’s largest power provider, Drax, was especially harmful in terms of woody biomass consumption.

Drax, which owns biomass pellet plants in Morehouse and LaSalle parishes, harvests wood in Louisiana and Mississippi and ships its products to Europe through the Port of Baton Rouge.

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

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

“We’ve estimated that Drax’s demand is requiring the cutting down of roughly 176 square miles of forest every year,” Carr said. “The burning of the wood pellets releases more carbon into the atmosphere than burning coal. That doesn’t even count the CO2 emissions from harvesting the wood, transporting it to the pellet mills, processing it, shipping it to the ports, shipping it to the EU and UK.”

Despite pushback against the practice, the biomass industry in Louisiana stands to be bolstered by the governor’s Louisiana Climate Action Plan. One aspect of the plan the Climate Initiatives Task Force released in February relies on Louisiana biomass for carbon sequestration.

The plan says the state agriculture and economic development agencies should “encourage use of Louisiana forest products — lumber, plywood, paper, wood pellets, and biomass — in state capital projects and other construction projects. Cognizant of Louisiana’s forestry resources and markets, it is recommended that outreach to 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 power is a bad idea in terms of increasing climate change,” Carr said. “Makes it worse instead of better.”

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