South Carolina’s role in the increasingly controversial wood pellet industry could expand with the construction of a new shipping terminal at the Port of Charleston.
Energy companies Abengoa and Kinder Morgan are asking federal regulators for permission to each build an export terminal. Wood pellets would be made in South Carolina and shipped to Europe to fuel biomass plants, according to documents filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But the plans are causing a stir with forest protection advocates, who forecast an explosion in growth of pellet mills. Pellet mills generally use waste wood to make soybean-sized wood nodules for market, forest industry officials say. Wood waste typically is composed of limbs and sections of trees unusable for saw timber.
Environmentalists say Europe’s thirst for wood pellets could easily evolve from using waste wood to using whole trees to make the pellets, as has happened in other states. The Southern Environmental Law Center says a new pellet terminal in Charleston would almost surely spark an increase in pellet mills in South Carolina – and that could mean the destruction of forests important to wildlife.
Europe doesn’t have enough wood to make pellets, so countries are increasingly looking to the American South for wood pellets to burn in energy plants. U.S. exports of wood pellets doubled between 2012 and 2014, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
The Law Center’s research shows about a half-dozen new pellet mills are on the drawing boards in South Carolina, in addition to a mill already operating north of Beaufort near the Georgia border. Most of the new plants would be in the state’s central and western regions, including one in Laurens and one in Winnsboro, according to a map developed by the law center.
Officials with Abengoa were not immediately available. Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley said only that the company is considering “a number of facility uses, but no announcement has been made thus far.”
Forest industry officials say large swaths of forest should not be threatened. Industry experts say companies would not likely seek to acquire large trees because of the expense.
The law center questions that. The Virginia-headquartered advocacy group says there may not be enough waste wood in South Carolina, noting that pellet mills in other states have used whole hardwood trees to make the biomass fuel. The Washington Post’s Tuesday story outlined some of the concerns in North Carolina.
“What would be the landscape impact of all these mills operating at once?” law center attorney Blan Holman asked. “These are large facilities with a very large demand. I think everyone supports forestry, inside and outside of the business. But we want to see it sustainable.”
According to plans, Abengoa wants permits to dredge a 3-acre area and construct a new wharf in the Cooper River. Warehouse facilities also would be built, including those for fuel storage, according to a Jan. 12 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit application. A conveyor system to transfer materials to ships also would be built, the permit request says. The public notice does not mention a pellet mill, but law center comments submitted to the Corps show that it would be such a terminal.
Kinder Morgan’s permit request is to install a new shipping conveyor system, transfer towers and extending a ship dock. The plan is to modify an existing Kinder Morgan terminal at Charleston to “construct a new wood pellet storage and export operation.” A September 2014 public notice of the plan says dredging would impact less than an acre.
It was not immediately clear whether a single terminal would be built or two terminals would be constructed and the companies would compete.
The center, which represents the S.C. Native Plant Society, wants the Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to consider the overall impacts a new Charleston pellet terminal could have on forests, as well as the more specific impacts new construction will have on wetlands and water quality.
In addition to concerns about wildlife, the law center says more pellet mills could reduce important woodlands that soak up carbon dioxide – one of the main ingredients in greenhouse gases that are changing the Earth’s climate.
The use of pellets for biomass plants in Europe has grown as a way to meet goals that address climate change and renewable energy on that continent, but environmentalists say burning wood pollutes the air and takes away forests that now soak up carbon. Biomass, which uses wood pellets, is expected to account for 18 percent of the total electricity production in the European Union by 2020, according to a March 20 letter from the law center to the Corps of Engineers.
The wood pellet industry is important to help lower greenhouse gases, industry officials contend. Over time, greenhouse gases will drop, in part because pellet mills give landowners an incentive to plant even more trees, according to industry officials quoted Tuesday in The Washington Post.
“Healthy markets have contributed to a 50 percent increase in volume of trees since the 1950s, which help offset 15 percent of U.S. carbon emissions annually,” Gretchen Schaefer, spokeswoman for the National Alliance of Forest Owners, told the newspaper.
The Washington Post article said that with mandates to cut back on coal, European governments are offering subsidies to utility companies that switch to biomass and other renewable forms of energy.
For once coal-dependent countries such as Britain, wood pellets are attractive because they can be burned in the country’s existing coal-fired power plants, the Post reported.
Whether South Carolina’s forests could sustain pellet mills is more complicated than it might seem, said Tim Adams, an economic development official with the S.C. Forestry Commission.
Adams said that while South Carolina has more wood available for harvest than ever before, the ages of the forests vary. Small trees that are most sought by pulp and paper mills, oriented strand board factories and wood pellet mills are not as abundant as large trees used for making lumber, he said.
“We have a short-term scarcity of small diameter pine trees and we have a long-term abundance of larger diameter pines,’’ he said. “That’s great for the industries ... that are looking to expand into solid wood products. But the problem is companies like pulp and paper, OSB or these pellet companies that all are competing for smaller diameter trees, it looks like there is a short-term scarcity of supply.”
Unlike Savannah, Charleston does not currently have a wood pellet terminal. As a result, the Palmetto State’s only pellet mill ships its products to Savannah for export. A new terminal could help supply South Carolina pellet mills, Adams said.