As the UK’s prime minister commits to “building back greener”1 and supporting “clean energy”,2 you may wonder why the UK’s biggest polluter, Drax Power Station, receives over £2.1 million3 every day in renewable energy subsidies to burn millions of tonnes of wood imported from clear-felled forests.
Drax is the world’s biggest tree burner4 and emitted almost 13 million tonnes of CO2 from burning wood in 2019, yet it is lauded by the UK government5 as part of the climate solution. To understand why Drax receives such strong political support, we need to investigate the murky world of corporate capture.
Corporate capture is defined by Friends of the Earth International6 as “the influence of companies on public institutions.” Polluting industries use lobbying and greenwashing to influence public institutions and government policy, often with devastating consequences for communities, ecosystems and the climate. A supreme player in this game is Drax Plc, and its influence is one of the primary obstacles to the protection of forests and to the transfer of public money from biomass burning to genuine renewables such as wind and solar.
How does a company like Drax influence government policy? Just some of the strategies7 used to shape decision making include behind-the-scenes lobbying of politicians, corporate sponsorship of UN COP climate summits8 and other events, the funding of academic research, membership of national and international committees and the greenwashing of harmful practices as “sustainable” and “climate-friendly.” Through these means, the world’s biggest polluters ensure that they are at the heart of decision-making and in a prime position to secure government subsidies that allow them to continue profiting from environmental destruction.
For a masterclass in lobbying and greenwashing techniques which have led to forest destruction, environmental injustice9 and climate-wrecking emissions, we need look no further than Drax. Let’s dig deeper into some of its corporate capture methods.
Firstly, Drax has a long history of influencing government decision making through MP lobbying. According to Open Access,10 Drax has attended a total of 53 meetings with ministers since the start of 2012, including a number of meetings during the coronavirus pandemic.11 Almost every energy minister since 2012 has been photographed at Drax wearing a high viz and a hard hat, with the most recent photo opportunity being a visit by Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng,12 in April. According to the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register,13 Drax has also attended 19 meetings with MSPs and officials since 2019.
These meetings have paid dividends as Drax secured government support for its conversion from coal to wood burning in 2013 after making misleading claims to MPs that it could burn forestry residues and locally-produced crops14 when it in fact required wood from slow-growing trees with a high bark content to burn in its coal units. More recently, Kwarteng15 has praised Drax’s claim that it can become a “carbon-negative”16 power station while Drax’s BECCS pilot project to capture and store carbon from burning wood received £2 million in government funding17 in 2018.
Drax is a founding member of the Zero Carbon Humber Coalition18 which has launched its application for around £75 million in government funding19 under the public/private sector funded Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund with an open letter to the energy minister.20 Kwarteng must be very familiar with the project by now after meeting with members of the ZCH coalition no less than 11 times between April and June 2020, to discuss “the impact of Covid 19” and “the green recovery”.
What Drax does not mention is that its ambition to “build back better”21 with “negative emissions technologies” is based upon unproven Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) technology22 from tree burning which would lead to even more forest destruction and conversion of land to monoculture tree plantations if it were ever made to work.
Another corporate capture technique is the use of lobby groups such as The Renewable Energy Association23 (REA) and PR companies including Robertsbridge and Stonehaven, which have represented Drax’s interests. For several years the REA ran a campaign, also supported by coal power station operators, called “Back Biomass”, which organized meetings and events with MPs including a meeting with Lord Barker of Battle,24 minister of state for DECC, to discuss “backing biomass” in June 2014.
Drax has also made regular appearances at the Conservative Party Conference, often facilitated by the influential think tank, Policy Exchange.25 At the 2020 Conservative Party Conference,26 for example, Drax’s CEO, Will Gardiner, spoke alongside Kwarteng to discuss “green technologies of tomorrow”. Last year, Drax’s investors rebelled during the company’s AGM over proposals to increase the “political spending”27 budget threshold for lobbying28 at events such as receptions at political party conferences, such large amounts making even them uncomfortable.
Drax’s links to the government do not end there. Nigel Adams, the MP for Selby where Drax is situated and a leading supporter of biomass burning, received donations29 and hospitality from Drax and attended Industrial Pellet Association conferences30 in Florida between 2015 and 2019, all paid for by Drax. The MP also chaired the now defunct All Party Parliamentary Group for Biomass,31 which was set up and funded by Drax.
Moreover, Nigel Adams is a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Renewable and Sustainable Energy32 (PRASEG). The cross-party group of UK politicians and industry regularly hosts Drax speakers, including CEO Will Gardiner and the former head of policy and government relations at Drax, Karl Smyth.33 One of PRASEG’s “full supporters” or funders34 just happens to be Drax.
Drax’s influence is not limited to its relationships with politicians. The Group Head of Climate Change at Drax, Rebecca Heaton, is also a member of the Committee on Climate Change35 (CCC), an advisory body to the UK government. She has previously worked for BP and Shell and contributed to CCC reports on ”Reducing UK emissions”36 and ”Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming”.37 The latter report supports Drax’s claim that “BECCS is critical to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.”38
Rebecca Heaton is not the only Drax representative with links to government advisory bodies. CEO Will Gardiner sits on the Government’s CCUS council39 alongside representatives of BHP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP and Equinor. This is the same CCUS council that gave £5 million in funding to Drax and a small start-up company called C-Capture40 for an unsuccessful BECCS experiment to capture carbon from tree burning and “store” the CO2 to make beer fizzy.
Equally alarming is Rebecca Heaton’s recent appointment to the Natural Environment Research Council41 which is responsible for funding academic research42 across the environmental sciences. This is not Drax’s only connection to academic research. The company set up the quarterly publication, Electric Insights43 with academics from Imperial College London, commissioned a report in 2018 with academics from UCL,44 funded PhD research at Sheffield University45 and appointed the Independent Advisory Board on Sustainable Biomass46 in 2019. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the IAB’s first report47 is supportive of Drax’s “sustainable biomass”. Through these appointments and funding of scientific research, Drax can influence the scientific narrative around biomass burning.
Drax is also adept at greenwashing its tree burning48 as “sustainable”, ”broadly neutral in terms of CO2”49 and “renewable”, and Drax representatives regularly speak at the UN COP climate conferences.50 Drax has described COP26 as a “compelling opportunity for the UK Government to demonstrate to the world it is taking a leadership position on negative emissions”51 and two of its partners in the Zero Carbon Humber Coalition, National Grid and SSE,52 have just been announced as COP26 sponsors. Even if Drax is not named as a COP26 sponsor, its frequent references to the UN Climate Conference53 suggest that it aims to play a leading role in promoting BECCS and “negative emissions technologies” during the COP.
While it’s doubtful that Drax and its collaborators will be able to capture and store carbon on anything like the scale they claim, there is a risk that vast amounts of public money and time will continue to be spent on these schemes and on biomass-burning in general. This would mean that in the crucial years that we could be protecting forests and reducing our emissions, Drax will continue to burn millions of tonnes of trees every year. For the sake of our planet, we cannot allow Drax to continue greenwashing its forest destruction and promoting false solutions such as BECCS and energy generation from biomass. As over 120 organizations from around the world agree,54 we urgently need to end subsidies for tree burning and redirect them to genuine renewables: “Protecting and restoring the world’s forests is a climate solution, burning them is not.”
You can take action here: https://you.wemove.eu/campaigns/the-eu-must-protect-forests-not-burn-them-for-energy