Rural Counties Wood Pellet Export Scheme Raises Concerns

Gary Graham Hughes, Americas Program Coordinator, Biofuelwatch

Over the first months of 2023 Humboldt County has taken on a leadership role in a massive scheme that aims to export wood pellets from California to global bioenergy markets.

In January, Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn, who is the official delegate of Humboldt County to the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC), an organization of some 40 rural counties from around the state, was appointed to the Board of Directors of Golden State Natural Resources. The five-person board also includes supervisors from Inyo, Modoc, Siskiyou and Butte Counties. 

Golden State Natural Resources (GSNR), an “affiliated entity” of RCRC, is a wood pellet manufacturing and export scheme that proposes to construct two new facilities, one each in Tuolumne and Lassen Counties, to manufacture 1,000,000 tons a year of wood pellets. GSNR would then move those wood pellets by rail to ports in Stockton and Richmond for export by ship to markets in Asia, Latin America and Europe. 

Increasingly, because of political convenience and carbon accounting loopholes, coal powered electricity generating facilities are converting to burning biomass. This global trend has continued despite the growing body of evidence that shows that wood pellets are a highly carbon-intensive, polluting, expensive, and inefficient energy source.

Even as the imperative to stop burning coal is becoming clearer by the day, the switch to biomass is climate suicide. Per unit of electricity produced, burning wood coughs up more carbon emissions at the smokestack than burning coal. 

In fact, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution would be emitted at every step of the GSNR project, exposing this wood pellet export scheme as a losing proposition for the climate. 

Cutting forests, trucking trees long distances, chipping the wood, manufacturing pellets, transporting the pellets by rail hundreds of miles to ports, and shipping the pellets to be burned overseas — every single one of these steps would be a significant source of climate pollution.

The feedstock for these wood pellet manufacturing plants would be drawn from at least a 100-mile radius around each industrial facility site, removing trees of any type and size from both private and public lands, damaging habitat for sensitive and endangered species and harming already seriously stressed forest ecosystems.

GSNR initiated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review of its project in November 2022, with a public comment period on the scoping of the project closing in December. A curious element to the scheme is that another ‘affiliated entity’ of RCRC, the Golden State Finance Authority (GSFA), is acting as the lead agency for the CEQA review of the GSNR project.

GSFA has a financial stake in the GSNR scheme, in that GSFA made a $10 million dollar loan to GSNR to initially capitalize the project.

Scoping included public meetings in Lassen and Tuolumne Counties, and one ‘virtual’ scoping event held online.

Strikingly, even though port operations are inherently a significant aspect of the GSNR proposal, the scoping of the project made no effort to engage the Richmond or Stockton communities to get their input on what would constitute an adequate environmental review of the scheme. 

The proposed deep-water port in Richmond is located next to a disadvantaged community with some of the highest pollution burdens in the state, especially diesel pollution and refinery emissions. Richmond is home to a notorious Chevron refinery, which is one of the largest sources of pollution in the state. The Chevron Richmond refinery is a facility famous for flaring, upsets and historic accidents, such as the August 2012 fire and explosion that seriously endangered refinery workers and impacted thousands of local people. 

Both the Richmond and Stockton communities already have a high exposure to particulate matter, which carries with it significant public health risks.

Storing wood pellets at ports prior to maritime shipping poses substantial fire hazards and significant air pollution emissions, while loading operations at the port would release methane and dust.

Despite the substantial impacts that this project would have on Richmond, GSNR did not engage Richmond city authorities and the Richmond community during the scoping of the project last fall. 

This failure to do adequate outreach in Richmond is apparently evident to the board of directors of GSNR on which Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn sits. At the late March GSNR board of directors meeting the need to return to square one with CEQA review and actually do adequate scoping in Richmond was discussed extensively.

The flubbed and amateur start to the CEQA review of the GSNR wood pellet export plan is just one of many reasons why the official role of Humboldt County in this massive wood pellet export scheme raises concerns, and merits scrutiny.