skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Debbie Hammel’s Blog

Build It And The Forests Will Fall

Debbie Hammel

Posted July 19, 2013

, , , ,
Share | | |

This week, Dominion Resources announced that it has converted the first of three power stations in Virginia from coal to biomass.  They announced that they are investing $165 million to build out these projects, and that these three plants will be fueled by wood from forests.  Dominion has among the largest investments in biomass-generated power in the Southeast region, and the three new projects in Altavista, Hopewell, and Southampton County will only expand that reach.

A good thing? Hardly.

It could lead to increased cutting of southeastern forests.  And there is no guarantee it will really cut carbon pollution.  So it shouldn’t be heralded as a green project.

To power its existing facilities, Dominion relies on "residues" from logging operations (treetops and branches) that come from verifiably unsustainable forestry: wood suppliers Enviva7 and Meadwestvaco.8  A recent investigative piece in The Wall Street Journal describes how Enviva sources trees from some of the most environmentally sensitive natural forests in the Southeast, including clear-cutting wood from wetland forests, some with trees more than 100 years old. While the industry typically argues that these types of destructive practices are isolated, they are actually representative of a simple fact: Enviva, a direct supplier to Dominion, is failing to protect important ecosystems, and Dominion’s supply is therefore tainted.

MeadWestvaco, for its part, is a known laggard on sustainable wood sourcing in the Southern forest industry, relying on the weak Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification. SFI certification is not much more than a greenwashing operation. It allows some of the worst forest management practices to occur, such as large-scale clearcutting, logging of endangered forests, and the conversion of biologically diverse natural forests to plantations.

Equally troubling, Dominion has no long-term sourcing policy that rejects whole trees. So these new projects – while currently fueled by “residues” - could very soon be fueled by whole trees over the long term. 

Why does this matter?

First, the additional demand for logs can destroy ecosystems that can never be replaced.  Furthermore, we now know - based on recent scientific findings - that burning whole trees to produce electricity actually increases carbon pollution, meaning it has an even worse impact on climate change than coal and other fossil fuels.  So, should the economics of Dominion’s supplies change, or the supply of residuals become limited, Dominion's operations could become dominated by whole trees. The result of that switch: more carbon pollution compared to the coal that has been displaced in the first place by the plant conversion. 

Dominion is rapidly expanding capacity to burn biomass. In total, the company is now poised to have a generation capacity of approximately 350 MW of electricity from burning biomass with potential for more in the future.  This is indeed a very bad trend for the environment.

Share | | |


Scott LloydJul 20 2013 07:27 AM

First, I'd like to point out that proper scientific analyses have clearly demonstrated that burning biomass for energy does not increase greenhouse gas emissions relative to fossil fuels.

Second, whether one burns whole trees or residues makes little practical difference if one analyzes forest carbon stocks at the landscape level.

Third, many forest certification schemes, including the FSC, allow the clearcutting of forests in the southeast US. Again, clear cutting is not an issue if harvest levels adhere to annual allowable cuts and allowances are made for protecting high conservation value forests.

Fourth, the BBC "report" did not, in any way, show that the harvesting operations mentioned in the blog post were taking placing in high conservation forests, nor did it show that the harvesting was in violation of state best management practices.

Fifth, I encourage readers to view the Forest Inventory and Analysis report for the US at The report, generated by the US Forest Service, shows that the annual increment of forests has more than double since 1953.

The inability, or the unwillingness, of the NRDC to present an honest, ethical and unbiased view of the science of forest management is a disservice to those who are truly concerned with forest conservation issues.

For those without any academic background in forestry, I discuss some of these very issues on my blog.

Kathy AbusowJul 23 2013 09:59 AM

I’d like to correct several incorrect statements about the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® Inc. (SFI®) and the SFI Forest Certification Standard. SFI is an independent nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable forest management and responsible purchasing of forest products. Our Board of Directors is equally divided among three chambers representing environmental, economic and social interests, with a two-thirds vote needed to approve any decision. SFI Board representatives include accomplished academics, conservationists, leaders in community development and government officials as well as landowners, forest professionals and tree farmers – a diverse group that reflects the variety of interests in the forestry community.

Our forest certification standard is science-based, rigorous and widely accepted – with 240 million acres in North America certified to the SFI Standard. Our Standard, which is revised every five years in an open, public process, includes measures to protect water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, and Forests with Exceptional Conservation Value.

Like all credible forest certification standards, the SFI Standard allows for clearcuts in working forests only where appropriate and when other requirements are met (e.g., wildlife habitat, site productivity, biodiversity, size restrictions, etc.); includes special requirements to protect old-growth forests; prohibits conversion to non-forest uses except in justified circumstances where it is documented that ecological impacts are not significant; and has requirements related to minimizing chemical use, including the use of least toxic and narrowest spectrum pesticides and the use of integrated pest management wherever feasible, and using only those chemicals that are approved by federal, state, and local governments.

The SFI Standard also has procurement objectives requiring that all SFI program participants — including those who buy forest fiber from non-certified forests — must show that the raw material in their supply chain comes from legal and responsible sources. They must promote responsible forestry by sharing management and stewardship knowledge, use trained loggers, and ensure best management practices for water quality are implemented.

SFI sets the Standard, but SFI program participants are audited against the SFI standard by independent third-party certification bodies accredited by the American National Standards Institute, the ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board and/or the Standards Council of Canada. Independent auditors with appropriate knowledge and skills conduct the thorough, consistent audits needed to make sure forest operations meet SFI's comprehensive standard requirements.

It is imperative that appropriate measures are in place for the bioenergy industry’s procurement of forest fiber in order to maintain the health of the forest resource. SFI and other third-party forest certification programs have a role to play in ensuring the growing demand for bioenergy feedstocks can be met without unintended environmental impacts on forest values such as water quality, soil productivity and biodiversity. Learn more at

Kathy Abusow
President & CEO
Sustainable Forestry Initiative

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Debbie Hammel’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In