Gloria Alonso Cruz had only just started working on environmental justice issues at a community organization in Stockton, California, when she learned about a proposal to sell wood pellets from the town’s port to overseas energy markets. 

Golden State Natural Resources plans to construct two wood pellet plants in Lassen and Tuolumne counties, about 250 miles north of Stockton, with the goal of exporting a million tons a year. While forest-based biomass may sound innocuous, every part of the pellet production chain bears an environmental justice or pollution risk, says Rita Vaughan Frost, forest advocate at Natural Resources Defense Council. 

First, trees are logged and stacked on trucks to be driven to processing facilities. There, the wood is turned into small pellets, similar to rabbit food. Then, diesel trucks transport the material hundreds of miles to a shipping facility and export terminal, like the Port of Stockton — where storage poses a fire risk. The pellets are later shipped to markets in Europe and Asia, where they’re burned to create electricity, generating carbon emissions. 

Golden State Natural Resource’s proposal would allow it to harvest trees from forests within 100 miles of the two processing plants. This radius includes sixteen national forests in a region known for its critical biodiversity. A 20-year master stewardship agreement established with the U.S. Forest Service will allow the company to harvest from public lands through 2045, when the state is slated to achieve carbon neutrality. 

Many might be surprised to learn that burning wood pellets causes more pollution per unit of electricity than coal does, says Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s worsening the climate emergency at a time when we’ve got to be rapidly cutting those carbon emissions,” Wolf says. 

In Stockton, the threat of logging exports compounds environmental injustices that already exist. State laws don’t prevent companies from building polluting facilities in already overburdened areas, nor is there any statute or legal framework that forces corporations to consider federal goals of transitioning toward renewable energy sources.  

This means there are no federal or state guardrails to protect against the fact that “developers are not accounting for cumulative impacts, [or] the fact that these natural resources are finite,” Cruz says. In fact, Stockton already has a lot of pollution: It ranks in the 90th percentile statewide, according to CalEnviroScreen, an environmental hazard mapping tool. Compared with other cities across California, Stockton’s has some of the highest overall exposure to toxins like ozone, particulate matter, and groundwater threats. 

Cruz says that is intentional, noting the communities of color and farmworkers who live and work in the state’s Central Valley have always shouldered the public health consequences that industries leave in their wake. In fact, California funneled public funds to the biomass industry in the 1980s and 1990s to support the construction of factories in low-income communities. Now, the wood pellet biomass industry and Golden State Natural Resources are poised to make the situation worse.

In 2015, the state approved a new law that requires polluting corporations, like the wood pellet industry, to pay for environmental justice projects in disadvantaged cities like Stockon, but advocates like Cruz argue that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to pollute in the first place. Across the state, at least four active biomass plants are in census tracts that face the worst pollution burden. 

Looking at how the biomass industry currently operates in the Southeastern United States heightens residents’ worries. Companies there have a track record of preying on overburdened, under-resourced communities, says Vaughan Frost.

In the South, pellet mills are 50 percent more likely to be placed in communities of color that fall below the state poverty line. Although the industry likes to talk about providing jobs, in one North Carolina community, the poverty rate actually increased after a wood pellet production plant began operations. 

Wherever pellet mills take root, pollution soon follows. A powerful odor, akin to plastic burning in a campfire, often emanates from these processing facilities. Heather Hillaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says that processing the wood creates volatile organic compounds, which mix with other pollutants to create ground level ozone and smog. Processing facilities also release toxins like formaldehyde, methanol, and acrolein, substances that can cause cancer even in small doses. 

Hillaker warns that federal standards established by the Clean Air Act don’t take into consideration the multiple forms of pollution that overburdened communities face, she says. 

“I’ve not really seen the pellet industry directly address, in any kind of meaningful way, the environmental justice impacts of their operations in the South,” Hillaker says. She explains they often argue “We are complying with our permits and therefore we’re not causing any harm.” But she says, “That’s not an accurate representation of what’s actually happening in these local communities.” 

Vaughan Frost is concerned that Golden State Natural Resources will similarly undermine the health and wellbeing of California communities. 

Vaughan Frost believes the industry is “exploiting the state’s traumatic experience of catastrophic wildfires to sell their plan.” The company claims that cutting down forests will provide less fuel for wildfires — a claim that the state of California has historically parroted. Many scientists disagree. One recent study found that in fire-prone western states, emissions related to broad-scale thinning biomass harvest were five times greater than those related to wildfire. California also has a history of lumping in wood pellet biomass as a “renewable” energy source, which critics say obfuscates the compounding climate threats of the industry. She says these claims — that logging can prevent wildfires and create renewable energy — are a distraction from legitimate wildfire prevention strategies, like home hardening and vegetation management

Advocates worry that once the forest is gone, recovery will be difficult. The wood pellet industry will soon be making incursions throughout the Sierra Nevadas, a much-loved mountain range that regularly draws outdoor tourists. Though the industry pledges to replant what they log, as climate change intensifies, there’s no guarantee monoculture saplings will be able to provide the same ecosystem services that the logged forest once did. 

With abundant wind and solar energy available, Vaughan Frost says, “We do not need to sacrifice California forests and communities for this.”

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing, and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Learn more at and follow on Twitter @NRDC.