Activists say that the Morehouse BioEnergy wood pellet plant causes air pollution. (Photo by Rachel Mipro/Louisiana Illuminator)
Gov. John Bel Edwards is, in many ways, pushing to be Louisiana’s “green governor” — the leader who transforms this oil-and-gas state into a safe space for sustainable energy.
“Make no mistake: an industry-wide transition to cleaner, less environmentally impactful energy production and utilization is going to happen regardless of if Louisiana participates, so it’s best that Louisiana be a leader in this space,” the governor said in a written statement earlier this week.
The governor is spending most of next week at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland and Edwards is increasingly promoting his environmental agenda, which relies heavily on attracting so-called green jobs to the state.
The governor has also become fond of saying that no state suffers more from climate change than Louisiana — and that no state is in a better position to capitalize on the growing clean energy sector.
The past two years in Louisiana have helped bolster that message. The state has been hit by two of the strongest and most destructive hurricanes — Laura and Ida — in the history of the United States, leaving many to wonder what climate change will mean for life in South Louisiana.
But it’s hard for environmentalists to be enthusiastic about Edwards’ focus on environmentally-friendly jobs when experts believe parts of his approach will hinder — rather than help — the state’s effort to go green.
Edwards has aggressively pursued biomass plants — a wood pellet industry that environmental advocates say is heavy on air pollution, carbon emissions and potentially a health hazard for those who live near its facilities.
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The governor is supposed to stop in York, England on his way to the UN climate change conference to meet with Drax Biomass.The company is thought to be the biggest biomass burner in the world. It is based in the United Kingdom, but it relies on wood from the southern United States to produce the pellets it burns for energy.
“The Governor is looking forward to meeting the team there, seeing their operations in the U.K. and encouraging them to continue their investments here in Louisiana,” Shauna Sanford, communications director for the governor, said in an email statement this week.
Drax already operates in Louisiana. The company owns Morehouse BioEnergy and LaSalle BioEnergy, two of the four wood pellet processing plants in the state. It harvests and manufactures wood in Louisiana and Mississippi and ships to Europe using the Port of Baton Rouge.
The governor, in his own words, “aggressively pursued” Drax’s business. In 2018, they moved their U.S.-based corporate headquarters from Atlanta to Monroe, according to The Monroe News-Star.
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“This is a testament to our state’s ability to attract new business opportunities and create jobs,” Edwards told the newspaper at the time.
But Drax plants have come under fire multiple times for air pollution. Critics of the biomass industry say their facilities are often located in poor, Black communities, where residents might not have as much leverage to pushback on their impact on residents’ health.
Patrick Anderson, an attorney for Powell Environmental Law, has been focusing on air pollution issues at wood pellet plants for almost five years. Anderson said there were multiple issues with air quality standards at Drax facilities across Louisiana and Mississippi. The state of Mississippi fined Drax $2.5 million after the company’s plant in that state was discovered to be emitting three times more air pollution than allowed, according to Southerly magazine.
The Morehouse Bioenergy plant in Bastrop, Louisiana also had a petition filed against it in 2018 for air pollution.
At the Morehouse plant, located about half an hour away from Monroe, the company was forced to install air pollutant controls. Anderson said the plant is now within compliance–meaning it is emitting only 200-250 tons of volatile organic compounds, which cause ground-level ozone pollution. It is still by no means good for the environment, he said.
“Even after they installed these controls, there’s still a very large source of particulate matter, air pollution, nitrogen oxide pollution, carbon monoxide,” Anderson said. “And they still emit hazardous air pollutants, but they’re at least in compliance, for the most part, with where they’re supposed to be big picture.”
According to Aidan Kerr, media manager for Drax, the company created 300 jobs in Louisiana and Mississippi and generates over $45 million a year in additional household income. Kerr said the industry also helps supports loggers, truckers and other supply chain workers.
“The safety of our people and the communities in which we operate is our priority. We take our environmental responsibilities seriously and are committed to complying with all local and federal regulations,” read a company statement sent by Kerr Saturday. “We are committed to delivering positive outcomes for the climate, environment and the communities in which we operate.”
In October, Edwards had Louisiana join the international “Race to Zero” campaign, a campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The governor also launched a Climate Initiatives Task Force, with the goal of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
But Anderson thinks the wood pellet industry is going to slow down these environmental goals.
“These plants are continuously wanting to expand and there are continuously new plants coming in,” Anderson said. “If that’s going to continue happening, that’s going to undercut any other efforts to reduce carbon emissions in the timeframe we need.”
The wood pellet industry is a relatively new one, driven by the market in the United Kingdom. Biomass, renewable organic energy that comes from plants and animals, has been championed in the U.K. as a source of green energy, a way to transition away from fossil fuel use.
Environmental advocates say the practice is not friendly to the environment, as the wood pellet plants pollute surrounding areas and incentivize the destruction of forests in Southern states. The carbon emissions from burning wood pellets are greater than those from burning fossil fuels, advocates said.
Derb Carter, a senior advisor for the Southern Environmental Law Center who has been criticizing the wood pellet industry in North Carolina for years, said the idea itself was wrong.
“There was this simplistic notion that trees grow back, so you can call it zero carbon when you cut them. But if the tree is 100 years old, it takes 100 years to grow back,” Carter said. “So you’re creating this debt that, at best, will take decades, in some cases, depending on the trees, even a century to recover; plus it doesn’t consider that if you leave the tree alone and let it grow, it’s going to continue to absorb carbon.”
The carbon accounting for biomass is also an issue. The pellets are harvested in and manufactured in the U.S., but then burned in the U.K., meaning that the full amount of carbon emissions isn’t taken into account in either country. Carter said that the carbon footprint from processing wood pellet plants and transporting them across the Atlantic isn’t accounted for either.
“That’s why we think this issue is so important, is that it’s really a false solution to climate change. It’s diverting resources. Drax is getting subsidized by the UK at a billion dollars a year to burn wood pellets, a billion dollars a year,” Carter said. “That money could be going to solar and wind, and other sources that are truly renewable and would enable us to make actual progress in terms of reducing climate change and the impacts of our energy on climate change.”
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