Meet The Activists Masquerading As Reporters Attacking Bioenergy

This week, the Raleigh News & Observer published a three-part series of articles on the wood bioenergy industry in North Carolina. The series is almost completely one-sided against the industry, omitting key facts and academic research, and failing to mention broad support from leading global climate authorities. Finding out who actually authored the series helps explain why that is.

The series was not primarily reported by the News & Observer’s own journalists, but instead by two freelance reporters – Justin Catanoso and Saul Elbein – in a partnership with a nonprofit news organization.

In fact, both Catanoso and Elbein are unabashed opponents of the wood bioenergy industry, as evidenced by their previous work, public statements, and social media activity:

– Justin Catanoso has written numerous articles on renewable wood energy in which he fails to present both sides of the debate or does not even seek comment from supporters of bioenergy. In June, he published a news article referring to wood bioenergy as a “scam” and warns, “Nature will not be fooled by the cooked books.” He frequently posts blogs railing against wood bioenergy, calling it a “ticking bomb” and a “dangerous fraud.”

– Saul Elbein has also specifically advocated against wood bioenergy. In 2018, Elbein posted to his Twitter feed an op-ed criticizing then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s support for wood bioenergy with the message: “Even for the Pruitt EPA, the cynicism of this is, in a word, breathtaking.” (As a side note the Obama Administration also supported wood bioenergy.) Elbein has also stated that he fundamentally objects to “balance” as a goal in journalism. In an interview last June, Elbein specifically criticized a major New York Times Magazine piece on climate change because it adhered to the New York Times’ journalistic standards and, in his words, “[told] a ‘balanced, objective’ story.” Elbein stated: “I don’t know that many people that talk about objectivity anymore as being the standard to aspire to.”

Examples of these freelance reporters’ bias appear repeatedly throughout the News & Observer series:

– Across three articles and  5,500+ words in this series, Catanoso and Elbein fail to acknowledge or make reference to any academic or professional reports that support wood bioenergy as a low-carbon energy source, despite the fact that there are recent reports that do so from institutions ranging from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the University of Georgia/U.S. Forest Service, Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, and 100 university scientists, who wrote a letter stating in part:

“The  long-term  benefits  of  forest biomass  energy  are  well-established  in  science literature. … Forest  biomass  energy   yields significant  net  decreases  in  overall  carbon  accumulation  in  the  atmosphere  over time  compared  to  fossil  fuels.”

– Catanoso and Elbein fail to mention that the world’s leading climate science authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has consistently confirmed the important role of sustainable wood bioenergy in every pathway to keeping temperature increases under 1.5 degrees Celsius. This includes the IPCC’s latest major report, released last August.

– Elbein claims that “no one is calling for” the elimination of demand for all forest products, but that’s the basic position of the Dogwood Alliance, one of the key anti-bioenergy campaign groups he repeatedly cites in his article. Last year, Dogwood’s Executive Director specifically opposed harvesting wood fiber for virtually any purpose – including building materials, clothing, and basic consumer goods such as paper bags and even paper straws, writing that “keeping forest carbon in the ground is as important as keeping fossil fuel carbon in the ground.”

– Catanoso and Elbein repeatedly raise the specter of the industry somehow causing deforestation in North Carolina, despite data from the UDSA’s Forest Inventory and Analysis service showing that the state actually gained approximately 150,000 acres of forest land over the last five years (from 2013 to 2018) – now at more than 18.7 million acres of forest land. Indeed, as North Carolina’s Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality tells them, “We are not seeing a loss of forest lands in the state; we’re actually seeing an increase.”

– Catanoso and Elbein fail to mention that due in part to the role of wood bioenergy from the US Southeast, zero-carbon energy surpassed fossil fuels as the UK’s largest power source for the first time in history last year, making it “the cleanest year for electrical energy on record for Britain,” reported The Guardian last week. Thanks to wood bioenergy replacing coal, the UK went 18 days last summer without using coal for electricity, the longest such run since 1882.

Instead of taking the six months they spent reporting this story to research and report on these and other positive, measurable industry accomplishments — replacing the dirtiest form of fossil fuel in coal — they’ve wasted their time opposing an industry that is today actually delivering climate change solutions, making forests stronger, creating new jobs, lifting rural communities, and continuing to innovate and grow.

This pattern of serious omissions and one-sided reporting is obviously very disappointing, and does a disservice to readers of the News & Observer and other McClatchy papers where the articles may run. But when you consider the source – two freelance reporters with a well-documented history of advocating against the industry and rejecting basic ideas of objectivity in journalism – it makes perfect sense.