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Axe Drax: Stop polluting power from scooping vast government subsidies

Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting

April 11, 2017
5 min read

Protesters outside Drax power station in 2016. Photo: Sebastian Wood

If Drax’s directors had hoped to escape the annual protests held outside their AGMs by shifting the meeting to York, they were mistaken. Activists are still planning to be at the meeting on 13 April, while also protesting in London outside Drax’s two largest investors, Invesco and Schroder.

So why target Drax? The company operates the UK’s biggest power station and single biggest source of CO2 emissions, and still one of its biggest burners of coal, despite a recent shift towards biomass.

The firm’s claim to have cleaned up its act rests on its move into using more wood pellets, and so Drax is now burning over 13 million tonnes of wood every year – far more than the UK’s total annual wood production. In fact, 98 per cent of the biomass Drax burns is imported, 81 per cent from North America, mostly the southern US where Drax operates two large pellet mills in Mississippi and Louisiana.

However, cutting down forests, pelletising that wood, shipping it across the Atlantic and burning it in a power station clearly won’t help the climate one bit. In fact, it is no better than burning coal. As Drax’s own annual report confirms, their biomass units emit more CO2 per unit of electricity than their coal-fired ones.

Nonetheless, the UK and EU classify Drax’s biomass as ‘carbon neutral’, on the spurious assumption that new trees will re-absorb all of the carbon emitted. Even in the best-case scenario, that will take many decades – and it is likely to accelerate the trend of replacing diverse and rich forests with monoculture plantations.

Rich habitat destroyed

Photos from the US pellet plants supplying Drax show vast piles of whole trees waiting to be chipped and pelletised before being shipped across the Atlantic. A large proportion of those trees come from the North American Coastal Plain, an area recently declared the world’s 36th Biodiversity Hotspot. It is home to over 1,800 plant species, 138 species of freshwater fish, 114 mammal species as well as many reptiles and amphibians which are found nowhere else. 85 per cent of this amazingly rich habitat has already been destroyed and much of the rest is now facing devastation due to increased logging to meet the demand for pellets from Drax and other power stations.

According to Adam Macon from the US conservation group Dogwood Alliance, this region is “the wild, wild west of logging. Companies can come in and log anywhere…generally unchecked”. The group has described a visit to Drax’s pellet mill in Louisiana:

“Orderly rows as far as the eye can see like a cornfield, regular spraying of fertilizers and herbicides, and plantations are so quiet because they’re almost devoid of wildlife… We chop down our native forests (in this case likely natural pine or mixed pine/hardwood forests) and destroy all the value these forests contained, replacing them with rows and rows of monoculture tree crops.”

Trees on their way to be turned into pellets in Southampton, Virginia. Photo: Dogwood Alliance

Most of Drax’s coal, meanwhile, comes from opencast mines in Colombia and the UK. All opencast coal mining pollutes water and air and devastates large areas off land. In Colombia, small farmers and indigenous peoples have lost whole villages, their food sovereignty and their health to large mining companies that supply coal to power stations including Drax.

The company is also still putting money into dirty gas. It has just acquired Opus Energy and with it plans for four gas power stations, one in Eye (Suffolk), two in the county of Swansea, and one in Bedfordshire. Two already have planning consent.

£1.5 million a day

Yet without vast biomass subsidies, Drax would have to close down. Last year, it cashed in on £541 million in public subsidies, paid through a ‘renewable electricity’ surcharge on all electricity bills. This comes to almost £1.5 million in subsidies every single day, a figure which will climb further in 2017. This at a time when the government has stopped all subsidies for new onshore wind and solar schemes, at the same time as offshore wind is under threat from Brexit (having been a major recipient of European Investment Bank loans).

Without subsidies, Drax’s finances would have been in the red for at least two years running. The subsidies paid to Drax could, instead, go a long way to insulating the UK’s leaky homes and building genuinely low carbon wind and solar capacity. Axing Drax is just the start.

York protest: Meet from 10.30am outside Drax’s AGM at the Royal York Hotel, YO24. More info
London protest: 12noon to 2pm, meet outside Schroder’s offices, EC2V. More info
For more details, see Biofuelwatch’s website.

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