BBC Reveals Drax Logging Old-Growth Forests for Biomass

A BBC Panorama investigation that aired tonight in the UK reveals that Drax -- the UK's biggest biomass power station (and the UK’s #1 polluter) -- is logging climate-critical forests in Canada, including irreplaceable, never-before-logged primary forests. Indeed, the investigation shows that Drax bought logging licenses to cut down two areas of primary forests in British Columbia.

This comes on the tails of Drax’s annual report released last April, in which it admitted to logging old-growth forests for pellet production in British Columbia and Alberta, stating that it will continue to produce wood pellets from old growth forests as long as the provincial governments allow it.

Here are four reasons this is really important evidence coming at a very pivotal time:

1. It proves Drax’s claims of only using the “wastes and residues” of logging for wood pellets FALSE – Drax consistently claims it produces biomass solely by using the "wastes and residues" (i.e., leftovers) of logging operations to create wood pellets. But the BBC investigation shows that this is simply not true. Instead, Drax is using WHOLE TREES, which are critical from both a climate change and biodiversity standpoint (see below for more on that). Myriad investigations over the years have found that it actually uses whole logs from forests. Other investigations have arrived at the same conclusion over the years (see here for example). In fact, Drax’s own records show that over half of the logs it imports into the UK to burn for biomass come from whole trees.

2. Old-growth forests are indispensable to fighting climate change and biodiversity loss - Old-growth forests are some of the world’s richest biodiversity strongholds, providing habitat for myriad plant and animal species during a biodiversity crisis scientists warn could result in the extinction of one million species. They’re also vital to avoiding catastrophic climate change. Canada’s forests are particularly climate-critical, given they store vast amounts of carbon. For example, the Canadian boreal forest alone stores twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves—yet about a third of Canada’s pellet industry is located there. And primary forests have unparalleled, irreplaceable value for the climate and biodiversity, storing 30-70% more carbon than previously logged forests. When these primary forests are logged, the carbon debt can last for centuries. The Canadian logging industry emits around 80 megatons of carbon dioxide annually, more than 10% of Canada’s total emissions. 

3. It’s further evidence that the UK’s sustainability criteria for biomass imports are useless – The investigation notes that Drax defends itself by claiming that its logging for biomass meets the UK’s sustainability criteria for imported biomass. First, off—that’s bogus given the UK’s criteria require companies to minimize harm to ecosystems; protect water, soil, and biodiversity; and conserve “key ecosystems in their natural state” among other things. Clearly that’s not what’s happening. But this investigation also bolsters the argument that the UK’s criteria aren’t fit for purpose, given they simply take the word of companies far away in other countries that are motivated by profit. We recently released a report showing how Drax’s imports from Estonia likely violate UK sustainability criteria. It doesn’t seem the situation in Canada is much better.

4. The UK is planning to gift MORE funding to Drax – Because the UK (along with other countries) has classified biomass energy as “renewable,” it has subsidized it to the tune of £6 billion. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be enough for the UK. In a desperate attempt to achieve net zero, without actually doing the work of reducing emissions, the UK is set to release a Bioenergy Strategy this year that could expand its reliance on biomass energy. To make matters worse, it’s currently consulting on how to fund bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) at Drax Power Plant which, despite claims to the contrary, can never be carbon neutral – let alone negative – due to its extremely dirty supply chain emissions (which aren’t capturable at the smokestack).Panorama’s findings come at a critical moment for Drax as the UK government is due to publish a new biomass strategy later this year, which will set out its policy for natural fuels like wood.

About the Authors

Elly Pepper

Deputy Director, Global Biodiversity Conservation, Nature Program

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