Wood pellet mills in California: A blessing or a boondoggle?

Pile of two kinds wooden pellets - renewable energy

Supporters say harvesting trees would thin out the state’s overgrown forests; critics say the wood pellets for heating produce more carbon than coal.

By John Johnson Jr., Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

Ryan Tompkins, a forester in California’s Gold Rush country, has been cursed with seeing his darkest predictions — those he thought would come true in the distant future — come to pass in his own lifetime.

“We’re seeing rates of ecological change in the forest we only used to talk about and write about,” he said. A University of California scientist, Tompkins is based in Quincy, a short drive down Highway 89 from Greenville. Or where Greenville used to be. Most of it burned to ash in the Dixie fire in 2021, the largest in state history.

The year before, the North Complex fire that razed Berry Creek and Feather Falls broke out south of him. Flames raced across 30 miles of Plumas National Forest in a single day.

Alarm might be too timid a word for what Tompkins and his fellow foresters feel about what is happening in the wild country along the spine of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Former President Trump was widely mocked for telling California to rake its forests, but there was an essential truth behind his garbled message: The state’s forests are much too dense and wildly overgrown. There are up to 500 trees per acre in places that historically supported 20 or 30 — and the toll of fire is just one proof of it.

Tompkins believes that forests should be actively managed by cutting trees and clearing the overgrown forest floor. Rural county officials see an additional reason to cut trees and clear forests: bringing back jobs lost in the long decline of logging. The accumulated biomass can be ground into pellets and sold for fuel in Japan and Europe.

“Much of the growth is too small to use as lumber,” said Patrick Blacklock, the president and CEO of Rural County Representatives of California, a consortium of county supervisors. “We asked ourselves, is there a responsible outlet? The short answer is yes.”

Plans call for construction of wood pellet plants in Lassen and Tuolumne counties, together providing 120 jobs of the kind that Modoc County Supervisor Geri Byrne said disappeared when the campaign to save the spotted owl decimated the timber industry.

“The only industry [now in her part of the state] is either agriculture or government.”

Environmentalists are alarmed by the plans, saying they will increase carbon emissions. But local support is strong.

Byrne, who lives in Tulelake, which, like many other rural areas, has seen its population decline with the loss of opportunity, said a recent town hall meeting on the wood pellet proposal drew 200 people, roughly five times the population of Nubieber, where one of the plants would be located. The other would be in Jamestown, in Tuolumne County.

“Every single one who stood up and spoke was in favor,” she said. “It will be a tremendous boon.”

Advocates contend the industry will be climate friendly and carbon neutral, but opponents say pellet plants already operating in the southeastern United States are neither. The U.S., they say, is paying the price of green energy in Europe.

Enviva Inc. operates nine pellet plants from North Carolina south to Florida. Its business model depends on a quirk in how carbon emissions are calculated according to a United Nations formula, counting where trees are cut, not where the pellets are burned. Using American pellets helps Europe meet its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050, even though burning wood releases more carbon than burning coal.

To critics, the European Union is just outsourcing its carbon emissions to the U.S.

Tim Searchinger, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, told CNN that “a law designed to reduce emissions that in reality encourages an increase in emissions … has to be flawed.”

Enviva claims it uses only treetops and branches in its plants, the kind of material the California plants also plan to use. But a whistleblower quoted by the Wall Street Journal last November called that a joke. “We use 100% whole trees,” he said.

That might explain the recent plunge in Enviva’s fortunes, since whole, hardwood trees are more expensive to obtain than the treetops it claims to use. In 2022, Enviva’s revenue topped $1 billion, but last year the stock cratered to less than $1 when the company reported $250 million in losses. On Jan. 19, the company missed its $24.4 million interest payment on its $750 million debt, and executives have openly fretted that it may not survive.

The rural representatives in California claim their operation will be nothing like Enviva’s. “Our mission is to increase forest health,” said Blacklock. “There may be instances [where whole trees are cut], but it’s very different than what’s happening in the Southeast.”

True or not, the wood pellet plants in California, which are still on the drawing board while an environmental impact report is being completed, have generated vocal opposition. U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told Capital & Main last November that the pellet industry should not exist.

“What an absurdity,” said Matt Holmes, strategy director of the California Environmental Justice Coalition in Stockton, whose inland port would be the shipping point for the pellets. He grew up in the area burned by the Dixie fire and is sympathetic to the need for better forest management.

“It’s a serious concern. But this doesn’t address the problem at all. I don’t think scraping up the forest floor and shipping it to Japan” is any solution, Holmes said.

Stockton already has a serious air pollution problem, and heavy truck traffic from grinding mills 300 miles away would only make it worse, Holmes added. According to California State University, Stanislaus, the San Joaquin Valley has some of the nation’s most polluted air, partly caused by geography, with the Sierra Nevadas trapping air in the valley, and partly due to heavy truck and auto traffic along Interstate-5 and State Highway 99.

As for relieving hardship in struggling communities, shifting the burden of the troubled northern regions to the central California community of south Stockton, a majority Latino region with high poverty levels, is not a fair trade. “To place this project in a community of color … This is something you do only if you know nothing about the area,” Holmes said.

Jason Kuiken, supervisor for the Stanislaus National Forest located primarily in Tuolumne County, said he could not take a position on any one project, but the Golden State Finance Authority, the lead agency backing it, has signed a 20-year stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, giving an appearance of support.

The U.S. Forest Service is “committed to an all-tools-in-the-toolbox approach,” Kuiken said. “Generally, we are in favor of economic development within our community as well as industries that reduce our need to burn biomass [in] the forest that could otherwise be put to good economic use.”

Tompkins, the University of California forester, pointed out that the state once had “a vibrant biomass market where small trees were burned to generate energy. Pellet plants represent another way low value material could be used. Pellet plants and co-generation facilities are all trying to address the problem. There are far too many small and medium-sized trees.”

If all goes well, Blacklock said, the pellet plants, owned by Golden State Natural Resources, could be operating in 2025. It is unclear who would actually operate them, though Blacklock insisted it would not be Enviva. But that depends on solving the associated problems, which fall under the purview of a variety of county and state offices. Jaime Holt, the communications officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, said the agency is aware of the plans and will comment on “potential air quality impacts” when the draft environmental impact report is issued.

Also read: ’They Can’t Breathe’

Copyright 2024 Capital & Main.

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an SN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.


Stay Updated

For the latest local news, arts and entertainment, sign up for our newsletter.
We'll tell you the story behind the story.

1 Comment on "Wood pellet mills in California: A blessing or a boondoggle?"

  1. Boris Seymour | April 5, 2024 at 12:23 pm | Reply

    Why Is the Bureau of Land Management Still Clearcutting Piñon-Juniper Landscapes?
    Conservationists had hoped the practice would pause with the end of the Trump administration, but the war on native trees continues
    By Jeremy Miller – Sierra Magazine
    April 2, 2024


    “The Danish government, for its part, sees the Lincoln County project as a move toward its national climate goals of generating 100 percent of its power with renewable energy by 2050. “Denmark is at the forefront of renewable energy developments, and closer collaboration between Nevada and Denmark can only strengthen our joint quests to create economic growth and well-paid jobs—while also doing good for the environment and our planet,” said Danish ambassador to the US Jesper Møller Sørensen in a prepared statement from the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development. It’s not clear, however, how the proposed logging of thousands of acres of arid land forests, which collectively sequester metric tons of carbon, is in line with those goals. Environmental organizations and academics in the US and the EU have long complained that logging forests in North America to provide fuel to Europe is a climate boondoggle.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.