Why it’s time to #axedrax

What did you do on Earth Day? We tried to switch off the UK's biggest power station, writes Oliver Munnion

April 29, 2015 · 5 min read

This year our ‘switch off’ was only figurative, as we targeted Drax’s owners. There have, however, been actual attempts to close Drax power station through protest, such as at the 2006 Camp for Climate Action. Back then, Drax was the focal point of the radical climate and environmental movement in the UK, and a powerful symbol of what is wrong with how energy is generated. 9 years later, and Drax is just as potent a symbol. The main difference now is that in the meantime, Drax has tried to re-invent itself as a responsible, clean, and low-carbon-burning “renewable energy” power station.

Other targets of UK Climate Action camps have been successfully confronted and opposed. There’s still no third runway at Heathrow, and Kingsnorth power station is closed and plans to rebuild it permanently shelved. A whole new generation of coal fired power stations were stopped by local and national campaigns, and a number of coal plants have been closed already. A phase out of the remaining power stations within the next five to ten years does look politically possible, with the notable exception of Drax.

Drax is by far the biggest power station in the UK. It is owned and operated by Drax Plc, the company’s only major operation. Closing Drax would effectively mean closing the company, something that executives and shareholders will avoid at any cost. That cost is being counted: it can be measured in clear-felled wetland forests in the southern US, where Drax sources its biomass, and in evicted communities in Colombia, where Drax sources some of its coal.

Drax’s partial biomass conversion will allow it to stay open and operating. The economics of large-scale electricity-only biomass are such that it is only profitable with large and lucrative renewable energy subsidies. Drax has had vast support from the UK government for its biomass plans and will soon be eligible for around £660 million in support each year. Burning biomass at Drax helps the UK to meet its EU renewable energy targets and provides a large amount of base-load capacity to the grid. Switching Drax to biomass is easier than the alternatives as far as policy makers are concerned, alternatives like increasing efficiency and reducing electricity demand.

The fundamental flaw is that, not only is burning biomass at Drax not renewable, it is allowing the rest of the power station to keep burning coal. So, for three years running Biofuelwatch have pitched up outside Drax Plc’s AGM in London.

This year, our #axedrax campaign made the case that there are no suitable alternatives for Drax except closure. The impacts of Drax’s biomass burning are plain to see thanks to evidence provided by US conservation organisations, as well as members of the scientific community who have spoken out against the flawed carbon accounting methodologies that allow Drax to get away with claiming that its fuel is low carbon.

The #axedrax protest last week was lively and colourful. London Biomassive campaigners attempted to disrupt AGM proceedings on the inside by unfurling and reading from a scroll depicting the biodiversity under threat from Drax’s wood pellet sourcing. An Appalachian Black Bear didn’t quite make it into the AGM, due to Drax security denying it entry before it had the chance to make a plea for its habitat. Richard Solly from the London Mining Network gave a powerful speech about the environmental and human rights abuses perpetrated by owners of the Cerrejon mine in Colombia, in order to provide Drax with coal. Ruth London from Fuel Poverty Action laid out the stark reality that, whilst energy bosses make millions through environmental destruction, millions of people are living in fuel poverty in the UK.

We then moved from the Square Mile to Whitehall and turned our attentions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. DECC’s decisions on Drax’s subsidies and support have in large part saved the power station from closure. At DECC we dressed a cardboard cut out of Energy Minister Ed Davey as the ‘DECC Grim Reaper of Forests’, complete with hooded cape and scythe-like axe. We handed him an open letter signed by organisations in the US, South America and Europe, calling for an end to support for Drax, including an immediate withdrawal of renewable energy subsidies and a swift phase-out of the remaining coal units.

Next year, you can count on us being back at the Drax AGM. In the meantime, there’s a third unit conversion to oppose, and efforts to make sure that Drax’s remaining coal units are included in UK-wide coal phase out plans. We’re also opposing Drax’s new White Rose power station, a whole new “Carbon Capture” coal plant that is in line for almost £1 billion in construction support from DECC. Already, over 100,000 people have signed our petition against public funds being used to build this power station.

You can keep up to date with the campaign at axedrax.org.uk or biofuelwatch.org.uk.



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