Greenpeace accused the government of misrepresenting its stance on burning trees to generate electricity, giving a minister the impression of public support for the highly controversial practice in meetings with the drax power company.
Greenpeace is strongly opposed to most forms of biomass burning for power generationand suspicious of claims that the resulting carbon dioxide can be captured.
But in a briefing note to a minister before a meeting with drax – formerly a coal-fired power station operator and now a major wood burner for electricity generation – officials cited Greenpeace for having “provided a statement in support of BECCS [bioenergy with carbon capture and storage]”.
The notes, seen by The Guardian, were obtained by the investigative journalism organization. desmog under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said the claim was misleading and damaging. Greenpeace, along with other green groups, oppose burning biomass for energy, except in special circumstances, for several reasons: burning wood releases carbon dioxide now, but regrowth trees to reabsorb carbon can take decades; growing trees for power generation takes up land that could be better used; cutting down trees destroys wildlife; and here they are few safeguards to ensure wood for burning comes from well-managed sources.
“It’s just not true, and it’s really annoying. [to be cited in support of the practice]Parr said. “We see no evidence of BECC being a useful way to reduce emissions.”
The FoI documents, dating from last March, show ministers have been the target of fierce lobbying by Drax, the UK’s biggest carbon emitter. Drax has converted four of its six boilers to burn wood pellets instead of coal, and was asked by National Grid on Sunday to “heat up” its remaining coal-fired generators. in case they were necessary to reduce strain on the UK power grid.
drax has received nearly £5.6bn in subsidies from energy bill payers over the last decade for its switch to burning wood, and expects billions more under a revamped subsidy system from 2027, the details of which will be laid out in 2025.
The think tank Ember has estimated that Drax could be in line for over £30bn in future grants. But environmental activists, including Greenpeace, argue that the subsidies are misplaced.
There are signs that the government is also prepared to rethink subsidies. Last summer, the Guardian revealed that the then trade secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, told a private meeting of parliamentarians that importing wood for Drax to burn was “unsustainable” and “doesn’t make any sense”.
The Treasury Briefing Notes obtained by DeSmog were prepared prior to a meeting with drax in early March 2022, just a few weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which sent gas prices soaring and the government scrambling to secure UK power supplies. Will Gardiner, Drax’s CEO, had requested the meeting with Lucy Frazer, then Treasury Secretary.
To prepare for the call, which after delays took place on March 9, Frazer received a briefing note on some of the issues related to BECCS and Drax operations. This included a discussion of the UK’s legally binding target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and Drax’s ability to provide 2 GW of electricity per year.
The notes conclude: “Power BECCS is generally unpopular with climate activists and NGOs, who are skeptical about cutting down trees and burning them to help save the climate. Some, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have written to the Treasury asking for it to be blocked. Nevertheless, Green Peace have provided the following statement in support of BECCS: ‘A small proportion of emissions are likely to be unavoidable and must be offset by carbon dioxide removal such as tree planting (afforestation/reforestation) or through technological approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or direct air carbon capture with storage (DACCS).’ Greenpeace January 2021”.
Parr said the statement was not “delivered” to the government and was taken out of context. The phrase came from a Greenpeace report compiled regarding carbon capture technologies, discussing the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the world’s leading climate scientists. The panel has said that ways of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would be needed to prevent the worst ravages of climate change.
Parr said: “This gives the false impression that there are environmentalists who support large-scale biomass burning. Aim civil society is strongly aligned against this.”
Elsewhere in the FoI documents, officials appear to be growing weary of Drax’s pleas, noting “the next in a series of lobbying attempts” at one point.
A Drax spokesperson said: “As the UK’s largest renewable energy generator by output, Drax plays a vital role in keeping the lights on for millions of homes and businesses. Therefore, it is essential that Drax engage with the government and other key stakeholders on matters related to energy security and its future business strategy.
“Last year, at the request of the UK government, Drax agreed to extend the availability of its two remaining coal-fired generating units to help bolster the UK’s energy security as a result of the war in Ukraine.
Drax plans to invest around £3bn by 2030 in critical renewable energy infrastructure projects, including BECCS and pumped hydro storage, which will support energy security as well as efforts to meet the country’s climate targets while creating jobs.
“Biomass is the only reliable renewable energy source that is available regardless of the weather, displacing fossil fuels in the electrical grid and playing a vital role in maintaining energy security. Drax is a world leader in sustainable biomass and we comply with all required laws, regulations and standards governing the energy sector, Drax businesses and supply chains in the UK, Canada, US and EU.” .
An HM Treasury spokesperson said: “Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is expected to play an important role in Britain’s future energy security and help the UK achieve its net zero emissions target. The use of biomass in power generation in the UK power sector has helped to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels. Drax is the largest provider of renewable electricity, supplying 12% of the UK’s demand for renewable energy.”