Expansion of US Wood Pellet Industry Points to Positive Trends but the Need for Continued Monitoring

A first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Scientific Reports finds that wood produced in the southeastern United States for the EU’s renewable energy needs has a net positive effect on US forests—but that future industry expansion could warrant more research.

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Date

Oct. 29, 2020

Authors

Francisco X. Aguilar, Ashkan Mirzaee, Ronald G. McGarvey, Stephen R. Shifley, and Dallas Burtraw

Publication

Journal Article in Scientific Reports

Reading time

1 minute

Abstract

Implementation of the European Union Renewable Energy Directive has triggered exponential growth in trading of pelletized wood fibers. Over 18 million tons of wood pellets were traded by EU member countries in 2018 of which a third were imported from the US. Concerns exist about negative impacts on US forests but systematic assessments are currently lacking. We assessed variability in fundamental attributes for timberland structure and carbon stocks within 123 procurement landscapes of wood pellet mills derived from over 38 thousand forest inventory plots in the eastern US from 2005 to 2017. We found more carbon stocks in live trees, but a fewer number of standing-dead trees, associated with the annual operation of large-scale wood pellet mills. In the US coastal southeast—where US pellet exports to the EU originate—there were fewer live and growing-stock trees and less carbon in soils with every year of milling operation than in the rest of the eastern US—which supplies the domestic market. Greater overlap of mills’ procurement areas exhibited discernible increments across selected carbon stocks. These trends likely reflect more intensive land management practices. Localized forest impacts associated with the wood pellet industry should continue to be monitored.

Authors

Francisco X. Aguilar

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

Ashkan Mirzaee

University of Missouri

Ronald G. McGarvey

University of Missouri

Stephen R. Shifley

University of Missouri

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