Burning trees with oil shale must not be rewarded with greenenergy subsidies

Open Letter to the Government of Estonia and to EU member states considering purchasing renewable energy certificates from Estonia

Burning trees with oil shale must not be rewarded with greenenergy subsidies

[Click here for a fully referenced version of the Open Letter with all of the signatories.]

The undersigned groups call on the Estonian government to exclude the co-firing of wood with oil shale from renewable energy subsidies and from inclusion in auctions of renewable energy certificates sold to other EU member states (‘statistical transfer auctions’).

The groups call on other EU member states to refuse to buy renewable energy certificates from biomass co-firing with oil shale from Estonia to help meet their own renewable energy targets.


The Estonian government wants to allow the state-owned company Eesti Energia to start co-firing large amounts of wood in its oil shale power stations. Eesti Energia will be able to receive some renewable energy subsidies for doing so. More importantly, the government wants to allow other EU member states to purchase renewable able energy credits from biomass co-firing in Estonian oil shale plants.

This would be bad news for forests, people and for the climate, for the following reasons:

  • It would help prolong polluting, high-carbon oil shale burning in Estonia;
  • It would accelerate the destruction of Estonia’s forests by creating a majornew demand for wood in a country where logging rates and practices are already highly unsustainable;
  • It would push up the price of heating and thus increase energy poverty
  • It would compete with genuine, low-carbon renewable energy, both in Estonia and in any EU member state that buys renewable energy credits generated from cofiring in Estonian oil shale plants.

Subsidising the co-firing of wood with oil shale would ‘reward’ one of Europe’s dirtiest energy industries

Over 80% of Estonia’s electricity is generated from oil shale. As a result, Estonia has the highest per capita CO2 emissions of all EU member states except for Luxembourg, and its total CO2 emissions were higher in 2015 than in 2000. Opencast mining and the processing of oil shale also cause high levels of air, water and soil pollution. People living in the region of Ida-Virumaa, where the oilshale industry is located, suffer higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease than those elsewhere in Estonia, and have the country’s lowest life expectancy for both men and women.

Despite these serious environmental, climate and health impacts, Eesti Energia has stated that it expects to gain €11-16 per megawatt hour of electricity from biomass cofiring that is sold to other EU countries. Cofiring could boost the company’s overall income from the oil shale power plants by up to €32 million a year.

Accelerating forest destruction

Up to 2.9 million m3 of wood a year could be co-fired in Eesti Energia’s oil shale plants.

Around 50% of Estonia is classified as forest, and its forests are of high recreational, economic and spiritual10 importance to people. Estonia is home to 12% of Europe’s threatened species and logging and wood removal are one of the key threats to wildlife. Between 2001 and 2015, Estonia lost 205,000 hectares of tree cover. The Nature Conservation Commission of the Estonian Academy of Sciences has warned: “Today’s forest management as a whole is unsustainable in its present trend, does not guarantee biodiversity conservation,takes little account of ecosystem services and therefore needs to change.” Yet the government wants to see annual logging rates increased from 10 mln m3 to 12-15 mln m3. The LULUCF requirement would limit mass burning of wood to 10 mln m3, the Estonian Environmental Agency estimates 8.5 mln m3as the sustainable limit, however various independent experts estimate that the sustainable rate would be about 6-7 mln m3 based on a median rotation age of 80 years.

Not low-carbon

A large new wood demand for co-firing would inevitably rely on cutting down more trees. Many scientific studies show that the climate impacts of bioenergy sourced from increased logging are no better than those of fossil fuels (per unit of energy), when considered over a period of several generations. A letter to the European Parliament signed by 800 scientists, states: ”Even if forests are allowed to regrow, using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries… – even when wood replaces coal, oil or natural gas.” A recent study shows that even sourcing forest residues for energy will result in high carbon emissions over a period of several decades.

Pushing up the price of heat

Bioenergy provides more than half of all heating in Estonia, and much of it comes from burning wood. This means that heating costs are highly sensitive to wood prices. A large new wood demand for electricity would increase wood prices and thus heating costs, which will most seriously affect the 21% of the population living in poverty.

Competing with genuine, low-carbon renewable energy

In Estonia, biomass electricity directly competes with wind energy, with wind energy subsidies having been capped and the government aiming for half of ‘renewable electricity’ to come from biomass – even though Estonia has a very high potential for wind energy, which is genuinely low-carbon.

If other EU member states were to purchase renewable energy credits from co-fired biomass from Estonian oil shale plants, they would evade investing in truly renewable, low-carbon energy and instead help subsidise both forest destructionand one of the most polluting fossil fuel industries in Europe.