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Tue 20 October 2020
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Stuart Spray investigates the environmental impact of Drax in North Yorkshire, the world’s largest wood-consuming power station

The UK Government should stop Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire from importing and burning wood pellets sourced from biodiverse forests in America, a US environmental campaign group has said.

“Now is the time for the UK Government to acknowledge its mistakes and put the brakes on Drax’s rapacious appetite for wood pellets before even more southern forests are destroyed” says Dogwood Alliance campaigns director, Rita Frost. “Our forests are under assault, and until the right policies are in place to ensure the protection of forests and our climate, further investment in this industry must be halted. The British Government must cut carbon, not forests.”

This statement follows a series of demonstrations and protests targeting the North Yorkshire power plant as part of the Axe Drax Campaign – demanding that the Government redirects the £789.5 million a-year renewable energy subsidies provided to Drax to instead fund a transition to genuine renewables.

The call is backed by Friends of the Earth, Extinction RebellionBiofuel Watch and Cut Carbon Not Forest.


Felling the Planet

According to research conducted by Biofuel Watch, 65% of the wood burned at Drax comes directly from the forests of America’s south-east. Wood pellets are produced at three mills owned by Drax and seven owned by Enviva, the world’s largest producer of wood pellets.

The trees are cut down, turned into pellets and then shipped to the UK. Thirty-five thousand tonnes, roughly 800,000 trees, are delivered every day to the power station in North Yorkshire by train from ports in Liverpool, Hull and Immingham.

Drax claims on its website that it “regularly examines the environmental impact of its pellet mills on the forests and markets in which it operates”.

It is well documented, however, that Enviva’s wood pellets are routinely sourced from coastal native hard wood forests which, despite being categorised as low-grade by forestry companies, are rich in biodiversity. Not only do the threatened wetland forests support thousands of species, such as black bears, West Indian manatee, northern long eared bats, red wolves and green pitcher plants, but they filter drinking water, reduce flooding and capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it indefinitely.

Over the past 200 years, 80% of this valuable forest habitat has been gradually cleared and used for agriculture, plantation pine forestry or suburban development. But the Dogwood Alliance says this destruction has accelerated due to the growing demand for biomass.

Only 10% of what remains has protected status, and with 4.35 million hectares of unprotected wetland forest within a 75 mile radius of their pellet-making facilities, it is understandable why Enviva and Drax have set up mills in the area. 

A clearcut site near the Meherrin River in North Carolina, which devastated an area of mature wetland Forest, January 2018. Photo: Dogwood Alliance

The Carbon Conundrum

In its latest Annual Report, Drax claimed that emissions from the power station had fallen from 22.7 million tonnes of CO2 in 2012 to below 1 million in 2019. However, these figures are misleading when you read the small print.

The harmful carbon emissions resulting from burning wood pellets are conveniently “counted as zero in official reporting to both UK authorities and under the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) as the use of sustainable biomass is considered to be CO2 neutral at the point of combustion”.

Despite the US, the UK and the EU currently labelling the burning of wood as a “carbon-neutral” source of renewable energy like solar and wind power, the fact remains that trees remove CO2 from the air, which is released back into the atmosphere when they are burnt.

The release of CO2 is immediate, but it takes several decades for a newly-planted tree to reabsorb enough carbon dioxide for the process to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

So although it finished converting four of its energy-generating units from coal to biomass in 2018, Drax is today producing more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than it did when it was coal-fired.

In 2018, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – the independent, statutory body established to advise the Government on building a low-carbon economy – recommended that the UK should move away from large-scale biomass burning unless it includes carbon capture and storage (CCS).

The theory of CCS is that carbon will be captured before it enters the atmosphere and then pumped underground to be stored. However, there are no operational CCS projects in the UK and although Drax experimented with the concept in February 2019, the small amount of carbon that was captured could not be stored and was immediately released back into the atmosphere. With CCS technology still in its infancy in the UK, it looks like Drax will continue to be the UK’s largest carbon polluter for the foreseeable future.

To make matters worse, in October last year the UK Government overturned the decision of the Planning Inspectorate and approved Drax’s application to build the largest gas-fired power station in Europe.

According to ClientEarth, the group that mounted a failed legal challenge to the decision, the project “risks locking the UK into unnecessary fossil fuel power for decades to come” and flies in the face of Drax’s “world-leading ambition to be a carbon negative company by 2030”.

A document published earlier this month by the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation confirmed we have just experienced the warmest decade on record – warning governments to do more to meet the goals of the Paris Agreements. It reiterated that we only have until 2030 to limit a climate change catastrophe and extreme weather events around the world.

But it was with no apparent sense of self-awareness or irony that Drax announced recently that it is donating $20,000, less than 1% of the renewable energy subsidies it receives every day from the UK Government, to help families in north-eastern and central Louisiana who were impacted by Hurricane Laura last month.

A spokesperson for Drax strenuously denied causing deforestation or forest decline saying: “The biomass Drax uses is sourced from sustainably managed working forests which grow back and stay as forests. Our world-leading biomass sourcing policy has been developed using the latest science and has been scrutinised by independent scientists, academics and forestry experts who have found it to be in line with the Forestry Commission’s recommendations, which are widely regarded as the industry gold standard.”

Dogwood Alliance is not so sure. Frost claims that sustainability standards related to forests are concerned more about ‘trees in the ground’ than anything else. “Within the US there has been a concerted effort to convert natural forests into pine plantations, at the rate of over 240,000ha per year since 1952,” she says. “It is likely that many of the forests that Drax’s pellets are sourced from were once bottomland hardwood forests that are now being converted into pine plantations, which store much less carbon and provide fewer ecosystem services than the previous existing natural forests.” 

Byline Times also approached the Department of Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) for comment. The department said it would respond, but a week later nothing has been received.

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