New insights into the destruction caused by the UK’s biomass policies


A new report published by Biofuelwatch illustrates the destruction caused not just by the UK’s current demand for biomass electricity but also by the expectation of massive growth in wood pellet imports for power stations. The report, Biomass: The Chain of Destruction, analyses the impacts of the UK’s and EU’s growing demand for wood pellets in the southern US, Brazil, British Columbia and Portugal as well as the impacts on people living next to existing or proposed biomass power stations and their suppliers in the waste wood recycling industry.

Brazil has so far exported only small quantities of wood pellets to Europe and likely none to the UK. However, industry analysts expect Brazil to become a major supplier in the future. In 2010, UK biomass company MGT Power entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Brazilian pulp and paper corporation Suzano Papel e Celulose, as reported in a previous article for Corporate Watch by Winnie Overbeek of the World Rainforest Movement. MGT Power was granted planning permission for a very large, 295 MW biomass power station at Tees Port in 2009 and the company has announced plans for a second one the same size at the Port of Tyne.

Two power stations of this size would need to burn woodchips and/or pellets made from nearly 6 million tonnes of green wood every year – the equivalent of 60% of all the wood produced annually across the UK. So far, however, MGT has not succeeded in attracting sufficient investment to develop one of the plants. Nor does Suzano’s pellet plant appear to have attracted enough finance yet for construction to start. This, however, has not stopped Suzano Papel e Celulose from establishing large new eucalyptus plantations in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, for future wood pellet production. Those plantations are the focus of a detailed case study by Ivonete Gonçalves de Souza, from the Center for Study and Research for the Development of the Southern Bahia Region (a local NGO and research centre from South Bahia), and Winnie Overbeek, which forms part of the new report. Crucially, it is the first detailed examination of a land grab linked directly to European demand for wood-based bioenergy.

Suzano’s biomass plantations are located in the Baixo Parnaíba region of Maranhao, which lies in the transition zone between Cerrado savannah and the Amazon rainforest. It is a region inhabited by traditional communities whose livelihoods depend on small-scale farming and on harvesting fruits from native trees as well as gathering other foods and materials from the Cerrado forests. Some are Quilombola communities, i.e. descendants of black people who escaped having been enslaved.

The first eucalyptus plantations in the region were established in the 1980s, for pig-iron production. Since 2008, Suzano has been aggressively expanding such plantations, partly for pulp and paper production and partly to establish one of the first pellet supply chains to Europe. For wood pellet production, they have been experimenting with very densely planted plantations, harvesting on much shorter rotations than traditional eucalyptus monocultures for the paper industry. Faster rotations and denser plantations require even more water and agro-chemicals than other eucalyptus plantations, which themselves deplete and pollute freshwater and soils.

Traditional communities in Baixo Parnaíba have been struggling to get their legal titles to the land recognised and regularised. This has rendered them vulnerable to large landowners who want community land for soya monocultures and to plantation companies, especially Suzano, which wants to take it over for eucalyptus. Some communities have successfully defended their land from Suzano, including by standing in front of bulldozers. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of hectares have already been converted to eucalyptus, with bulldozers having destroyed highly biodiverse savannah forests as well as the land on which communities depend on for their livelihoods.

Importantly, the serious impacts in Baixo Parnaíba are due to the expectation of future UK/EU biomass demand, rather than actual current wood pellet supplies. This is just one type of indirect impact resulting from a newly created market which could never be addressed by sustainability standards. In any case, Suzano has succeeded in obtaining FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification for similarly destructive eucalyptus plantations elsewhere in Brazil and few doubt that the company will succeed in obtaining it in Baixo Parnaíba, too. Suzano would then automatically meet the UK government’s proposed biomass sustainability standards from April 2014.

So far, the great majority of wood imported for UK power stations comes from the Southern US and British Columbia. As a Freedom of Information (FOI) request earlier this year revealed, the only type of biomass that can be burned in large quantities in coal power stations such as Drax is wood pellets from slow-growing trees and with a low bark content, which rules out most sawmill residues. Dedicated biomass power stations can burn other types of biomass, but at present Drax accounts for the majority of biomass imports. And while RWE Npower’s converted Tilbury B power station has been closed down, the China General Nuclear Power Group (CGNPG) is reportedly seeking to acquire Eggborough power station to convert it to biomass. The planned 50% conversion of Drax and 100% conversion of Eggborough combined would require pellets from almost 32 million tonnes of wood to be burned every year – more than three times the UK’s total annual wood production.

Biofuelwatch’s report includes an interview with Danna Smith, Executive Director of the US conservation NGO Dogwood Alliance. Dogwood Alliance is one of two NGOs which have published an investigation into one of the pellet mills which supplies Drax, in North Carolina. The plant, owned by the biggest pellet producer in the US, Enviva, sources wood from whole trees from native forests and threatens the survival of highly biodiverse ancient wetland forests in the region. A Wall Street Journal report has documented that wood from at least one clearcut (i.e. where all the trees in an area are uniformly cut down) swamp forest that had not previously been logged for over a century was sold to Enviva for pellet production.

According to Danna Smith, “the southern US is home to the world’s most biodiverse temperate forests. There are more species of plants and animals found in these forests than anywhere in North America. The forests also contain the most biologically diverse freshwater ecosystems on the planet.” She refutes claims by Enviva – also made by Drax – that the pellets are made from residues of logging operations that would happen anyway. It is true that landowners (and in the southern US 90% of forests are privately owned) can obtain six times the price for selling a tonne of high-quality roundwood to sawmills than for pellet production, but only 25% of the wood from wetland forests is suitable for sawmills. Without the additional lucrative wood demand from pellet companies, landowners would have no incentive to clearcut whole forests – indeed, they would benefit far more from allowing smaller trees to grow to mature size instead. The creative carbon accounting that allows Drax to obtain high levels of subsidies for so-called ‘low-carbon biomass’ has been discussed elsewhere, such as in Biofuelwatch’s report Sustainable Biomass: A modern myth.

Unfortunately, nobody has so far carried out an independent investigation into the pellet industry in British Columbia, which is so far the biggest sourcing region for UK wood pellet imports. However, clearcutting of old growth forests is rampant across the region and the mountain pine beetle epidemic has been used by logging companies and their supporters in government to intensify existing logging activities and open up ever more forests to loggers. Clearcutting of beetle-infested forests, euphemistically called ‘salvage logging’ has been shown to harm forest regeneration and to lead to massive carbon losses when compared to leaving infested forests untouched. By themselves, beetles rarely kill all the trees in an infested forest. The president of the Wilderness Tourism Association in BC has described logging activities in the state thus: “The situation is a free-for-all. There’s no control. There’s no restriction. They have complete freedom to do what they want, when they want and nobody else has much say in that.”

Another chapter of the report looks at the experience of UK communities affected by some of the 45 plans for new biomass power stations. The biggest direct threat which large scale biomass burning poses to local residents is air pollution. According to figures obtained by the previous government, up to 1.75 million life years could be lost in the UK in 2020 due solely to increased small particulate emissions from biomass expansion. And those are just one of 79 different pollutants recorded by the US Environment Protection Agency from burning virgin biomass. Burning treated waste wood poses even greater risks to health. One of several community campaigners interviewed for the report, Donna Liley from the Mossley Environmental Action Group, lives next to a large plant by a wood recycling company that produces wood chips for power stations. She describes the effects of contaminated wood dust experienced by herself, her neighbours and many people living near other such plants, many of whom have reported similar types of ill health which they believe is associated with the dust.

Even though wood dust is a known carcinogen and dust from chemically treated waste wood will contain many additional toxins, there are no UK regulations about wood dust exposure. Regulations only relate to general dust levels (from all sources) measured on surfaces and the Environment Agency admits that those are based on “custom and practice” and that “the original source data from which this guideline is drawn are not particularly robust”.

Experiences reported by campaigners against biomass power stations similarly illustrate the level of bias in the planning permitting system against local communities and anyone trying to protect public health from dirty developments. Finally, the report shows that existing and proposed biomass power stations in England are disproportionally located in more deprived areas. In Scotland, all of the large proposed biomass plants, i.e. those of more than 50 MW, are also located in areas with above average deprivation levels.

Support two current Biofuelwatch alerts

1) The Treasury has given a £75 million public loan guarantee to Drax to proceed with their 50% conversion to biomass and to avoid closing down altogether. A public loan guarantee means that if the developer defaults on private loans, those will then be paid out of general taxation. Now they have shortlisted 17, largely destructive, ‘infrastructure’ projects for similar loan guarantees. Those include three large biomass developments: the proposed conversion of Eggborough Power Station, a new biomass power station in Avonmouth that would burn around 1 million tonnes of imported wood a year and a new biomass and waste incinerator in Tilbury. Please send a letter to the Treasury objecting to those plans: If you live in London or in or near Bristol and would like to find out about other opportunities to campaign on this, please email Biofuelwatch at .

2) Please sign a petition in solidarity with communities threatened by tree plantations for wood pellets and pulp and paper in the Baixo Paranaiba region of Maranhao state, Brazil: If you would like to support the petition on behalf of an organisation then please email the World Rainforest Movement at instead.