Drax bosses face parliamentary grilling over Panorama claims

Members of the Environment Audit Committee have heard that the UK’s largest power plant’s claims to provide renewable energy through sustainable biomass sources are inaccurate.

Drax power station in Selby, YorkshireA BBC One Panorama investigation in October found that the pellet production of Drax power station in Selby, Yorkshire – conducted through a subsidiary company ‘Pinnacle’ – contradicted its sustainability policy which claims to both ‘not to use carbon-locking and primary forests’ and to avoid the use of wood suitable for other products.

Notably, Professor Michael Norton, Environment Programme Director at the European Academies Science Advisory Council, told the session: “Once you switch from coal to biomass, the CO2 coming out is actually more. So to put [biomass] as a renewable energy is quite strange”. Dr Alan Knight, Drax Group Director of Sustainability, answered that moving towards biomass is moving away from fossil fuels reliance and that the materials used by Drax would have been burnt in British Columbia regardless.

Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas questioned Dr Knight on the 80 per cent of their supply which Drax claimed comes from timber ‘unsuitable’ for use for other wood products. The MP said that – via conversations she’d had with a BBC Panorama producer – the grade four logs being used by Drax were suitable for use for other products such as fenceposts. She also claimed that indigenous First Nation people in Canada wished to use the grade four logs for their own purposes. Knight answered that grade four means the wood is ‘unsuitable for sawmills’ but did not respond to the allegation about its use for other products.

Drax had previously said that the material it uses either comes from leftover sawdust or from Canadian forests that have been ruled out for use in other areas. The investigation contradicted this, showing the harvesting of high-grade logs by Pinnacle.

Attending the select committee session at the request of Drax, Director of the Energy and Bioproduct Research Institute at Aston University – for which Drax sits on the independent advisory board – Professor Patricia Thornley said that it is unhelpful to audit single truckloads, as the BBC did, as it misses the larger picture of deforestation.

She added: “Personally, I would like to see foresters managing forests because, frankly, they know what they’re doing.”

Drax Group shares dropped to an all-time low on 21 October, following the release of the Panorama episode. They have since recovered and are currently trading two per cent below the level prior to the BBC airing its investigation.

Cherry Waters, a Selby Green Party representative on the Stop Burning Trees coalition commented: “It has been refreshing to see the effects of the Panorama documentary on Drax's shares, presence in the local media, and participation in and sponsorship of events. I was particularly pleased to read that the North Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission are now calling on them to answer questions about their practices. I do hope this will result in their removal from their position as one of the commissioners.

“The latest concern is their desire to add a carbon capture unit, and CO2 storage facility, to the power station. There is no evidence that carbon capture actually works at scale, and there are huge safety concerns about having a CO2 pipeline going from Drax out into the North Sea.”

Drax responds

Drax denied the claims in a statement published the same day as the Panorama episode aired (3 October). The company responded that Canada has ‘some of the most highly regulated forests in the world’ and it was the company's position that ‘people living in and around these forests are best placed to determine how they should be looked after, not the BBC’.

The company went on to affirm its commitments to sustainable sourcing and that its sustainability policy is in line with guidelines set by the UK and Canadian Governments. Drax says the investigation into the sourcing of materials for its wood pellets ‘focused disproportionately’ on ‘the minority of people who oppose biomass’. It continued that the investigation repeated claims which have been disproven and are most often promoted by the previously mentioned minority – who it claimed had ‘vested interests’.

Drax said its lawyers had written to the BBC and it was considering further action.

This was followed by a statement three days later (6 October) by Drax CEO Will Gardiner who supported the company's initial denial of the claims made by Panorama and went on to individually refute specific allegations.

Gardiner said: “To be clear, not all biomass is sustainable or renewable, but when sourced in the right way it does lead to the positive outcomes we are committed to delivering, and we have clear policies and processes in place to ensure this is the case.

“As CEO, I understand that achieving and sustaining these positive outcomes needs constant challenge – both internally and externally – particularly with those that don’t share our vision of the critical role biomass has to play in decarbonising our economy.”

The Wood Recycling Association (WRA) responded to the initial investigation, saying Panorama’s findings indicated the ‘importance of using domestic waste wood’.

Resource has contacted the Drax Group for comment.