GALLMAN — At Tuesday’s groundbreaking for Alternative Energy Development-Copiah, the speakers, including U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, touted the new company’s impact on jobs and the state’s timber industry.

“You know it is such a testament to opportunity, to leadership to vision. We have to tell it all day long, every day we can never miss an opportunity to talk about our great state and how wonderful it is to bring a business here … We have a forest product inventory. We’ve got a lot of trees out there. You’ve got to capitalize on what God gave us,” Hyde-Smith told the crowd.

One topic each speaker avoided though was climate change — one of the very reasons alternative energy sources like the wood pellets from this plant have a market in the first place. Despite debate over the question of whether wood fuel is carbon neutral, some industries see timber as a lower cost solution to the effects that fossil fuels like coal and oil have on increasing the earth’s temperature.

When asked if she believes alternative energy is important, Hyde-Smith said, “Absolutely. It’s very important.”

She declined to elaborate or respond to follow-up questions from Mississippi Today, however. The senator ignored one question about her reasons for supporting alternative fuels, her aides telling a reporter she did not have time for additional questions. And when asked if she believed the accepted science that climate change is man-made, she stepped into a waiting car and said, “We will talk about this later.”

In a state that relies heavily on agriculture, which is severely affected by extreme weather events, Hyde-Smith, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee and formerly oversaw the state ag commission, plays an important role in policymaking and advocacy for Mississippi farmers. Meanwhile, her colleague, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker in 2015 was the lone member of the Senate voting no on a symbolic resolution affirming that “climate change is real and not a hoax.”

Mainstream science has accepted for decades now that burning fossil fuels, which increases carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, contribute significantly to rising temperatures across the globe.

This month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report showing that major adverse climate impacts are likely at lower temperatures than previously believed. Before this report, scientists believed that global temperatures would have to increase 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit before significant issues occur such as increased droughts, wildfires and hurricanes becoming widespread. The report concluded that the increase above pre-industrial levels to prove calamitous in the next 12 years is actually just 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Keeping those increases below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit would require significant worldwide policy change. And President Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord last year, has shown little interest in making those changes. Hyde-Smith, who will defend her Senate seat in next week’s special election, has been running on a platform of aligning “100 percent” with the president’s agenda.

“There’s a lot of belief both ways, very political beliefs,” said Gary Ogle, owner of Alternative Energy Development-Copiah, when asked directly about the importance of alternative energy and climate change. “In my personal opinion, it is something that we need to face, really, that the carbon footprint—in my opinion—does have a lot to do with global warming.”

The forestry industry has promoted burning wood pellets as a cleaner, more renewable energy alternative to coal and gas. And right now the market, which ships primarily to countries overseas, is surging. By 2023, the market for wood pellets, which was virtually nonexistent in the 1990s, is expected to reach $20 billion, according to a Market Research report.

Wednesday’s groundbreaking included the announcement that AED had reached a 10-year agreement to sell 500,000 metric tons of these wood pellets a year to markets in Asia. The plant will directly employ 60 workers and indirectly add another 200 jobs in timber harvesting and trucking, Ogle said.

“It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Arthur Evans, executive director of the Copiah County Economic Development District. “It’s gonna give our economy a big boost.”

The plant that Alternative Energy Development-Copiah is taking over had been empty since 1992. Back in 2010 when Hyde-Smith was a state senator, she had approached Ogle about building a sawmill in that part of the state.

“I’m excited that this facility in Hazlehurst will provide an additional market for wood fiber grown right here in Mississippi. Pellet manufacturing will give new life to this plant, support jobs, and strengthen the economy in this region,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement.

Although burning wood pellets produces significantly less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, evidence suggests that it may not be as beneficial as industry leaders suggest. The wood pellets come primarily from two sources: wood chips, a residual product from logging, and “first cutting” trees, which are younger trees harvested to allow the bigger trees around them to grow.

“It’s 100 percent wood that wouldn’t be used otherwise,” Ogle said.

But some environmentalists say there is evidence that previously untouched forests in states like North Carolina and Florida have been cut down to feed the demand for this resource.

The timber industry, which recently has seen slower growth in other markets, such as paper and pulp, strongly supports wood pellets as alternative energy.

“Mississippi has a ton of wood supply, so it makes sense to send this out to countries that don’t have that supply,” said Tedrick Ratcliff of the Forestry Association. “Landowners like the idea of additional markets.”

Follow Mississippi Today’s full coverage of the historic runoff election between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.