There is a growing industry that's providing wood pellets for power. Pellet producers say it's renewable energy, but critics argue that this practice is actually clear-cutting trees — removing a critical line of defense against climate change.
An estimated 6 million acres of forests are managed and harvested each year for products like lumber and paper. Logging in America's south, known as the "world's wood basket," is outpacing activity in the Brazilian rain forest.
Danna Smith, with the environmental group Dogwood Alliance, told CBS News that forests are turned into wood pellets and burned by electric plants to generate power. Producers say the energy created from the practice is green because trees grow back, and that the carbon released from the trees while burning them will be absorbed by other trees.
"That's just not true," Smith said. "Just because they clear-cut this forest doesn't mean these forests are magically absorbing more carbon out of the atmosphere."
Smith's team traced clear cuts in North Carolina and Virginia to a company called Enviva, the nation's largest producer of pellets. Enviva declined CBS News' request to visit their plants, but vice president Don Calloway said they only use leftover waste wood, like tree tops and limbs.
"Every piece of fiber that's taken into our program is low value wood," said Calloway. "If we did not create this service, it would be left to rot on the forest floor and would be left to create forest fires."
Foresters told CBS News that they found something else entirely at Enviva's plants.
CBS News' drone captured what foresters say appeared to be entire trunks of pine trees, stacked in piles around 100 feet long and several stories high, that could also be used for paper production. Calloway denied they were tree trunks, insisting they were tree tops and limbs. "
Calloway said Enviva doesn't clear-cut forests. However, the company's own public disclosures show 90% of some harvests — including trunks — go straight to them.
Once the wood arrives at Enviva, it is loaded onto conveyor belts, chipped into sawdust and compressed into pellets. The pellets are then trucked 90 miles to the Port of Chesapeake and shipped to Europe, where European Union regulators consider pellets a renewable alternative to coal. The U.S. does not.
"There's no real doubt here that wood pellets and frankly, woody biomass, are a far superior climate change mitigation option than fossil fuels, particularly coal," Calloway said.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded wood burns dirtier than coal, and determined it takes at least 44 years for replanted trees to absorb the carbon released from burning the ones they replaced.
Most trees come from private landowners, like Hunter Darden III, who credits Enviva for creating thousands of jobs. However, competition has led to forests being cut younger, he told CBS News.
"A landowner can make more money in a shorter length of time dealing with smaller timber than waiting for it to get to saw timber size," Darden said.
A report by the Southern Environmental Law Center found demand is fueling the additional logging of tens of thousands of acres a year in the area of North Carolina and Virginia impacting wildlife and homes on the front lines of harvest and those located near the plants.
Laura Clark said her mother lives next to the Enviva plant in Garysburg, North Carolina, which is in one of the state's poorest counties.
"This is since I've been here that has collected," Clark said about the dust on her car's windshield. "That's not pollen... it's not yellow. That is dust."
"It makes you feel like people don't care about you or your health," Clark added.
While Enviva acknowledged past issues with dust at other plants, they disputed accusations of poor air quality near its Garysburg plant and said what we saw was not coming from their plant.
"We have tremendous empathy for anyone who's enduring health issues anywhere, but we can definitively say that we are not the cause of any respiratory or any other kind of health issues in the neighborhood or vicinity of our plants," Calloway said. "The ambient air quality around all of our plants throughout out entire fleet is tested quite regularly by multiple sources. It's tested by ourselves. It's tested by the EPA."
Enviva currently has 11 plants, and has submitted proposals to build six more. But critics said in this changing climate, the only growth that needs to happen is in our forests.
"We have an enormous opportunity to choose a different path and to choose a path that is truly more green," Smith said.
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