Greenpeace has accused the government of misrepresenting its stance on burning trees for electricity, giving a minister the impression of public support for the highly controversial practice in meetings with the power company Drax.
Greenpeace is firmly opposed to most forms of biomass burning for power generation, and 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 burner of wood for electricity generation – officials cited Greenpeace as 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 organisation DeSmog under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).
Doug Parr, the chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said the claim was misleading and damaging. Greenpeace, along with other green groups, opposes biomass burning for power, except in special circumstances, for several reasons: burning wood releases carbon dioxide now, but regrowing trees to reabsorb the carbon can take decades; growing trees for power generation takes up land that could be better used; cutting down trees destroys wildlife; and there are few safeguards to ensure that 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],” said Parr. “We see no evidence for BECCS being a useful way of reducing emissions.”
The FoI documents, dating to last March, show that ministers have been subject to fierce lobbying from Drax, the UK’s biggest single carbon emitter. Drax has converted four of its six boilers to burn wood pellets rather than coal, and was asked by National Grid on Sunday to “warm” its remaining coal generators in case they were needed to reduce strain on the UK’s energy network.
Drax has received about £5.6bn in subsidies from energy-bill payers over the last decade for its switch to wood burning, and is hoping for billions more under a revamped subsidy system from 2027, the details of which will be set out in 2025.
The thinktank Ember has estimated that Drax could be in line for more than £30bn in future subsidies. But green campaigners including Greenpeace argue the subsidies are misplaced.
There are signs the government is also prepared to rethink the subsidies. Last summer, the Guardian revealed that the then business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, told a private meeting of MPs that importing wood to be burned by Drax was “not sustainable” and “doesn’t make any sense”.
The Treasury briefing notes obtained by DeSmog were prepared before a meeting with Drax in early March 2022, just a few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent gas prices soaring and the government scrambling to secure the UK’s energy supplies. Will Gardiner, the chief executive of Drax, had requested the meeting with Lucy Frazer, then exchequer secretary to the Treasury.
To prepare for the call, which after delays took place on 9 March, Frazer was given a briefing note on some of the issues surrounding BECCS and Drax’s operations. This included a discussion of the UK’s legally binding target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, and Drax’s ability to provide 2GW of electricity a year.
The notes conclude: “Power BECCS is generally unpopular amongst climate activists and NGOs, who are sceptical of 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 seeking for it to be blocked. However, Greenpeace have provided the following statement in support of BECCS: ‘A small proportion of emissions is likely to be unavoidable and must be offset by carbon dioxide removal, such as by tree-planting (afforestation/reforestation) or by technological approaches like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or direct air carbon capture with storage (DACCS).’ Greenpeace January 2021.”
Parr said the statement was not “provided” to the government, and was taken out of context. The sentence came from a report Greenpeace 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 avoid the worst ravages of climate breakdown.
Parr said: “This gives a false impression that there are environmentalists giving their support for biomass burning at a large scale. But civil society is strongly lined up against this.”
Elsewhere in the FoI documents, officials seem to be growing weary of pleas from Drax, noting “the next one in a series of lobbying attempts” at one point.
A Drax spokesperson said: “As the UK’s largest renewable power generator by output, Drax plays a vital role in keeping the lights on for millions of homes and businesses. It’s therefore essential for Drax to engage with government and other key stakeholders on matters relating 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 generating units to help bolster UK 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 whilst creating jobs.
“Biomass is the only source of reliable, renewable power which is available whatever the weather, displacing fossil fuels on the electricity grid and playing a vital role in maintaining energy security. Drax is a world leader in sustainable biomass and we adhere to all required legislation, regulations and standards which govern the energy sector, Drax’s businesses and supply chains in the UK, Canada, US and EU.”
A HM Treasury spokesperson said: “Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is expected to play an important role in Britain’s future energy security and helping the UK to achieve its net zero target. The use of biomass in energy generation in the UK’s power sector has helped to dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels. Drax is the largest renewable electricity provider, meeting 12% of UK renewable power demand.”