What I Learned from Danny Fortson

In June I joined another journalist in Louisiana and Mississippi to look closely at the emerging pellet industry. His recently published story proves how difficult it can be to tell this story accurately and in the broader global energy context.
By Tim Portz | October 21, 2014

Editor’s Note: In June, I participated in a media tour organized by Drax to have a look at the pellet facilities it is building, its pellet handling facility in Port Allen, Louisiana, and some of the working forests that will supply the pellet facilities with their requisite fiber. The other writer joining the tour was Danny Fortson, who at the time was a senior business reporter for The Sunday Times in London. Danny was there to write a piece for the Sunday Times about Drax’s biomass journey which reaches all the way back to the loblolly forests of Louisiana and Mississippi. Danny was joined by a photojournalist named Jez Coulson. The two of them are professionals in every sense of the word. Danny and Jez saw everything I saw. They met the same people. They walked the same streets in Gloster that I did and they flew in a helicopter over the same tracts of forest that I did. How then did Danny produce a story, illustrated with Jez’s photographs, that was so different than my own? I’ve read and re-read Danny’s story (the bulk of Danny’s story sits behind a pay-wall. The monthly subscription fee is less than $2, however)  and think Danny’s piece really illuminates the challenge this industry faces as it tries to gain credibility and acceptance with the general public.

 1. Images are as capable of conveying misinformation as information. While I don’t know where the image ended up in the print version of the story, the first image in the online story is one we have all seen before. A worker stands in front of a large pile of recently felled logs. The photograph is a strong composition and the logs seem to glow with a light of their own. The gentleman in the lower left hand side of the picture serves to establish scale. The problem I have with the photograph is it perpetuates a common misconception about the kinds of trees and fiber that end up in pellet mills. Coulson took this photograph at Rex Lumber near Brookhaven, Mississippi. These trees will never see the inside of a pellet mill. Instead they will be converted into the high-value dimensional lumber and sheeted materials that drive the entire forest products industry. These trees are far more valuable than the trees that will ultimately become wood pellets. 

2. Words carry emotion. All writers know this simple fact. Word choice is determined by the writer and possibly/probably that writer’s editor. The words used are directly connected to the emotion the writer and his or her editor wants you to feel. The subhead (the phrase immediately below the headline in a story) in Danny’s story reads, “Britain’s most toxic power station, Drax in North Yorkshire, is going green – by burning trees ripped from the forests of Mississippi. Is this eco-madness?” Toxic. Ripped. Eco-madness. Danny’s subhead would read very differently by simply replacing those three words. With those three words swapped out, the headline could read, “Britain’s largest power station, Drax in North Yorkshire is going green – by burning trees harvested from the forests of Mississippi. Is this sustainable?” The latter delivers the reader to a very different emotional place than the former. 

3. Context is crucial. I’ve spent nearly two years covering the story of the Drax conversion. There isn’t a week that goes by when I don’t read, write or talk about the pellet industry generally and Drax’s conversion story specifically. After two years, I feel like I’m just starting to get a sense of how Drax’s conversion fits into the larger stories of the forest products industry, climate change mitigation, global trade, government policy and even local economic development. Simply stated, Danny hasn’t and his piece just doesn’t offer much context to his readers. The sentence that I first underlined in Danny’s piece was, “Is it really “green” to chop down hundreds of thousands of trees and ship them 4,000 miles across the Atlantic so they can be incinerated in Britain?” I suppose the question is fair, but its answer is complicated. What is missing from this sentence is context. Drax’s demand for wood pellets did not give rise to the movement of wood fiber across the Atlantic. It may sound more dramatic to allow a reader to come to that conclusion, but it just isn’t factually accurate. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations maintains a very good website full of information about global movement of agricultural and forestry commodities. It allows a user to look at import quantities and values of all manner of grown and harvested goods. Avocadoes to Wood Pellets. A snapshot of forest products imported by the UK during 2013 shows that wood pellets are just a portion of a massive movement of wood fiber into the UK across a broad swath of product categories. One of the largest categories of imported wood fiber in the UK? Newsprint. Nearly 6 million tons of product code 1876 “Paper and Paperboard” were imported into the United Kingdom, far more than the 3.3 million tons of pellets they imported in the same year. If we are comfortable moving fiber from the United States to the UK for Sunday papers, why do we wince when we move fiber to the UK to power the presses that print those newspapers? Danny closes out one of his paragraphs saying, “It claims that Britain could soon be burning “six times as much wood as all our forests currently produce each year.” Again, this statement is missing context. The UK cannot meet its fiber needs with UK forest inventories. It can’t. The pellet industry and Drax’s conversion to wood pellets didn’t cause fiber demand in the UK and if Drax reverted to coal tomorrow, the UK would still be a very, very large importer of American wood fiber. Context.

4. Deciding who pays the bill for a transition to a low carbon economy will be tough. The portion of Danny’s story that I thought was most thought provoking were the questions he raised about the household economics of how the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change expects to pay for its move toward less carbon intensive energy questions. Fortson reports that nearly 2.3 million households in the UK have fallen into “fuel poverty” which Fortson describes as households whose income falls below the poverty line when power bills are taken out. I’m fascinated by the bigger question. The overwhelming majority of scientists suggest that climate change is being caused in part by man’s reliance on fossil fuels loaded with geologic carbon. To slow the rate of change, we have to drive this geologic carbon out of our energy mix. That said, as the incumbent it is very difficult to compete with fossil fuels on price. If the UK wants cheap power, it should absolutely stick with coal. But the UK has decided on a different energy future, an energy future with lower carbon energy. For now, this will cost more. The tough part for everyone in renewables is convincing everyone that the cost of NOT transitioning away from fossil fuels and geologic carbon will have to be paid by someone, somewhere. 

I’ll conclude by suggesting that you read Danny’s article. Find a copy. Pay to get beyond the pay wall. Do whatever you’ve got to do, because as a participant in this industry it is vital that we all think about how our story is being told. Finally, I enjoyed spending time with Danny and Jez. They aren't out to get this industry. They did their best to tell a story. My intent here today was to illuminate how difficult that very simple goal can be.