“There is absolutely no question the climate is changing and human activities are responsible for that change,” filmmaker Chris Hardee asserts. It’s one of the most pressing and threatening issues of our time. “Polls have shown a very high percentage of people in the U.S. believe this to be true. In addition, innovative solutions about how to alter our energy course already exist.”
Nevertheless, obstacles remain when it comes to significantly combating climate change and surrounding causes, including the energy industry. “[Also, there’s a] shortsighted willingness of some people to put near-term profit before the health of the planet and ultimately of all people on it,” Hardee says.
One such industry, albeit less talked about than coal and oil, is biomass power, which is the focus of Marlboro Productions’ documentary “Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?” The film takes a look at biomass companies who have labeled themselves “green” or an “alternative-energy savior.”
However, it relies on the destruction of forests for fuel across the U.S., including North Carolina. In fact, the Port of Wilmington houses two Enviva wood-pellet storage domes with a total capacity of 90,000 metric tons.
“We want all Wilmington residents to think about the thousands of acres of North Carolina forests that are stored in those domes and then shipped to the UK where they are burned in order to power toaster ovens and electric toothbrushes,” Hardee says. “Once aware, we don’t believe that the people of Wilmington will agree that this should be the fate of North Carolina’s forests.”
As associate producer of the film, Hardee will join fellow filmmaker Lisa Merton, Cape Fear Sierra Club, and Dogwood Alliance at Jengo’s Playhouse for a public screening of “Burned,” followed by a discussion on Monday night. Funded by a grant from Patagonia, it will kick off the Barnstorming Tour of the southeast—to include three stopovers in NC (Durham, Raleigh, Charlotte), Georgia (Savannah, Athens, Statesboro), and one showing in Danville, Virginia—a small community wherein a pellet plant is proposed.
“The film’s release and tour are happening at an important time because policy decisions in the U.S., EU and UK are being made now about how to classify biomass energy in the future,” Merton says. “Renewable energy plans are being created that will affect forests and the climate for the next 10 to 20 years. With trees being the best technology for capturing carbon from the atmosphere, the next two decades are going to be critical for the trajectory of the changing climate.”
Thus far “Burned” has been screened in their homebase of southern Vermont and at five film festivals, including the American Conservation Film Festival in West Virginia where it won the Audience Award. They’ve since learned more about the general public’s knowledge of biomass power and how “Burned” attempts to educate and incite action from folks.
“After every screening to date, we have heard a chorus of incredulous comments, such as ‘The U.S. is cutting down forests and sending pellets to the UK! I had no idea this was going on!’” Hardee recites. “I consider myself a somewhat informed person about energy, climate change and the environment; yet, I came to the topic similarly unaware of the energy industry’s industrial use of wood for the generation of electricity.”
Like others, Hardee thought biomass was synonymous with small-scale heating. Despite coverage in major publications, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, the issue remains virtually invisible for most. Raising awareness is an important goal of the film.
“We don’t want the film’s impact to stop there, though,” Hardee continues. “[We] hope the film encourages the general public to take action, while it also motivates energy policy-makers to rethink the classification of biomass as renewable or carbon-neutral, which given the science is just a ludicrous conclusion.”
The idea to spearhead the issue stemmed from their 2008 film, “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai,” also released by Marlboro Productions. “Taking Root” followed Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai and her tree-planting initiative called the “Green Belt Movement.” Aside from being the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the prize, Merton says working with Wangari resulted in her team obtaining a different outlook on forests.
“We became curious about ecosystem services and how much we take what nature provides us for granted,” she continues. “We were also looking at forest fragmentation and conservation efforts to establish wilderness corridors to provide room for animals to move north as climate change warms their habitats. An interested funder asked if we’d heard about the biomass industry and its devastating effect on forests, and as a result, the climate. We started looking into it and were stunned we knew nothing about the issue. We almost immediately realized a film about the biomass industry could also encompass the issues we were already researching.”
While “Burned” may have started with planting trees in Kenya, North Carolina is among states featured because of its three large wood-pellet plants in operation, with more being proposed. According to the Dogwood Alliance, production at four facilities near the North Carolina-Virginia border costs nearly 50,000 acres of southeastern forest each year. Ahoskie, NC’s pellet plant is amongst them.
“On multiple trips to NC, we filmed at several of these facilities and the logging sites that supply them, and the surrounding communities,” Merton says. “Exports of pellets from all of the southeastern states are expected to increase from 10.6 million tons in 2019 to more than 15 million tons in 2030. . . . I was surprised to find out in Ahoskie there were people who did not know what was being made at the Ahoskie plant, despite the huge number of trucks that come there daily, carrying logs and chips.”
North Carolina forests keep rivers healthy and clean, prevent flooding, and provide habitat for wildlife and hatcheries for spawning fish species. “Burned” also points out how hardwoods pelletized for profit include the last remnants of natural forests in the Tar Heel State and will be replaced most likely with pine plantations. The latter do not provide the same ecosystem services or habitats for indigenous species as natural forests do. “[Pine plantations] are more like cornfields and have just about the same amount of biodiversity!” Merton adds.
Despite our nation’s ongoing struggle with climate change, unwavering dependence on energy and fossil fuels, and an administration opening up almost all public lands and waters to coal, oil and gas industries, Hardee remains hopeful people will recognize the importance of forest resources.
“If we didn’t have hope [we] would be able to change hearts and minds about resource practices and energy policies, we wouldn’t have made the film,” he says. “As a first step, people just need to know about the industry practices and energy policy decisions that have created this situation. The film provides viewers with that background.
The creators of “Burned” also have developed “Take Action” steps, which can help people channel their energy after seeing the film. It also educates on forest and environmental advocacy organizations, like Dogwood Alliance, Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club, Clean Air Carolina, Georgia Climate Change Coalition, Biofuelwatch, Indigenous Environmental Network, Global Justice Ecology Projects, among others.