At the recent United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow (COP26), a dominant issue, as in previous conferences, was that governments and businesses underreport emissions. Yet there has been relatively little discussion of the biomass loophole. On the contrary, in Glasgow the EU seemed to be doubling its biomass. “To be perfectly frank with you, biomass will have to be part of our energy mix if we are to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels”, Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President of the European Commission for the European Green Deal, told reporters. Meanwhile, the Earth’s atmosphere continues to absorb huge amounts of carbon that do not officially exist.
A group tour of the Drax Power Plant, which I took in 2019, began at a visitor center with shiny floors, high ceilings, black and white photographs of the coal mining past and a 19th century turbine model. It looked like a science class in a public school in a city with a healthy tax base. The walls were lined with positive newspaper headlines: “Drax Leads Europe in Green Power”, “Power Station Looks to an Eco-Friendly Future”. Of the fifteen people who joined the group tour, four were boys under the age of ten. Two brothers, aged around seven and nine, intimidated and with big ears, accepted their helmets and safety vests from the tour guides with shy excitement. A little kid, perhaps in kindergarten, adorable in his tracksuit – a mini Jason Statham – clung to his mother’s leg.
One of the tour guides – white, tall, bald, in his 50s, rimless glasses, daddy’s sense of humor – pulled us all to attention, holding up a small transparent jar of wood pellets. âWhat can you all tell me about biomass? ” He asked. Silence. âVery calm group today. The adults were smiling expectantly; the children took stock of their reflections on the ground.
Finally, one of the intimidated brothers said, âIs it natural? “
The guide was delighted. “That’s right!” he apologized. He shook the potty as the boy looked down with shy, secretive pleasure. “These are residues from the lumber industry, made from waste and sawdust.” The tour guide had a musical Welsh accent and he was rocking back and forth like the sound of it. He passed the sad vial of orphan wood residue around the room and asked if anyone knew where the wood came from. âNo, we don’t get it from England. No, we don’t get it from Germany. Can we do better? May be? Slightly better?”
âThe United States,â I added. People laughed, because the person with the American accent said âUnited Statesâ.
âIt’s true,â the guide repeated. âWe don’t have a lumber industry in the UK, so we don’t have all the waste that they have there in the US, and also in Canada. They have all these beautiful trees, to do things and so forth, they cut these trees, make these things, furniture, boards, you know, and we just use the pieces of trees that they don’t use. .
Drax burns wood pellets from pellet factories located primarily in the United States and Canada. In the south there are four factories owned by Drax and several more owned by one of Drax’s largest suppliers, called Enviva. In Canada, there is Pinnacle Renewable Energy, which Drax bought this year. These operations cut down many trees: pine and deciduous forests in the South; and spruce, pine and red cedars in British Columbia. Part of this activity takes place in primary forests, forests that have never been logged before. Pellets made from these trees are shipped from ports (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is one; Prince Rupert, British Columbia, is another) to England, where they are loaded onto custom trains, brought at Drax and burned to provide around six percent of the electricity used in the UK
The Dogwood Alliance has extensive photographic evidence of whole trees in North Carolina and Virginia piled on trucks heading to Enviva pellet plants, which require some fifty-seven thousand acres of wood per year to operate. Conservation North, a community group in British Columbia that works to protect primary forests, took aerial photographs of thousands of acres of forests in British Columbia that the provincial government licensed to the Drax affiliate, Pinnacle Renewable Energy. These forests have recently been cleared of their spruce, birch and pine trees. âThese forests went to Pinnacle and then to the Drax power plant to be burned,â Michelle Connolly, director of Conservation North, told me.
This evidence conflicts with official Drax promotional material. According to a Virtual tour produced by Drax, the wood it burns for biomass is “made from tiny pieces of sawdust” which are “made when the tree trunk is cut into large pieces needed for construction and furnishings.” Minutes later, in the same video, you see entire trees loaded into a debarking machine, as a narrator talks about “thinning forests from sustainably sourced and substandard timber.”
When I first asked Drax spokesperson Selina Williams about this clearcut evidence, she challenged me to use the word âloggingâ. âPinnacle is not a logging company,â Williams said on several occasions. When I rephrased âloggingâ to âfelling trees,â she repeated the phrase mockingly: âFelling trees? What do you mean by cutting down trees? Ultimately, she said, “Canada has one of the most regulated forest industries in the world and has laws requiring a specified annual cut to minimize the risk of pests, disease and fires.”
Conservation North’s fight is less about Drax or Pinnacle and more about the BC government, which, Connolly said, “will not recognize that primary forests exist and are important for wildlife habitat and as carbon sink â. There is another loophole at work here: According to international definitions, if a government or private entity cuts down a forest but does not develop the land, it has not officially engaged in deforestation. âThere is no law against the degradation of primary forests in British Columbia and Canada,â said Connolly. Canada’s forests were one of the the biggest carbon sinks around the world, but about ten years ago, due to a combination of logging and natural disasters such as fires and drought, they began to emit more carbon than they absorb. (According to Lewis, the spokesperson for Drax, “43% of the material used to make all of our pellets comes from sawmill residue” and “the proportion is much higher in Canada, where our operations use about eighty percent sawmill. residues. â)
On the Drax tour, the message to make good use of the lumber industry’s waste seemed to resonate. âIt’s wonderful that they found a use for all of that leftover wood,â mini-Jason Statham’s mom said as she looked up at one of the huge cooling towers.
âIt certainly is,â said the guide. “So there’s ten steel balls inside each of these spray mills, which we’ll visit later, and what they do is turn those pellets into what, well, the pellet powder, and the fuel falls, it burns, the ashes come out the bottom, all happy there? Questions, happy, above all? All very happy?
Later that day, I spotted the intimidated boys’ mother asking them about what they had learned. “Why are they burning wood? ” she asked.
“Because no one else wants it?” ” we answered.
âIt’s true,â she said, beaming.
The tour group boarded a transport van to tour the Drax complex. Drax is in the middle of the English countryside, but once you walk in the gates it feels like the only thing around Drax is more Drax. There are a few brutalist concrete office buildings, connected by walkways. Otherwise, the buildings are strictly industrial, housing the boilers, sprayers and furnaces, surrounded by these two sets of six cooling towers and turbine rooms, with the chimney somewhere in the middle of it all. We walked through an open area of ââscrubby vegetation – about forty-seven acres – and stopped in front of a huge pile of coal. âIt was all coal here,â the guide said. It was still a lot of coal.
We pulled up to a giant, open metal shed, where rail tracks entered from one side and exited from the other. Here, trains bearing the slogan “Power of tomorrow” transporting dumplings from English ports. Seventeen trains a day, with twenty-eight wagons each, bring twenty thousand tons of pellets to this hangar every day.
Drax, like England itself, has an ambivalent relationship with coal. Working in a coal mine meant you risked being choked in a pit or by your own lungs for pay, but it was a stable life. At its peak, in the 1920s, the British coal industry employee over a million people. In 1990 it was fifty thousand; by 2016, only a thousand. In the 1984-85 miners’ strikes, Margaret Thatcher made unions her enemy, but it is also quite simply a lot less expensive for England to import coal than to exploit it. When the coal industry collapsed, work in England became predominantly urban and either professionalized or service-oriented. Cities where people once did physical labor to maintain the country’s infrastructure have become places to sleep and be unemployed. Britain’s last large-scale underground coal mine – Kellingley, which is also in North Yorkshire, about twelve miles from Drax – has closed. in 2015. The Selby coalfield, also in the region, once employed 3,500 people; today, Drax employs around seven hundred.
Many people living in and around Drax have solid jobs with the government, or at a great sixth-grade school called Selby College, or nearby York University. The wealthiest residents go to York or even London. But there are also many residents who are unemployed, underemployed, working under contract, or in low-paying service jobs. I spoke to Steven Shaw-Wright, Selby City Councilor, on Zoom, about the economic landscape of the Selby area. He described a chain of indoor amusement parks twelve miles from Selby called XScape, which is also home to cinemas and restaurants. It is built on the site of an old coal mine. âXScape has a lot of jobs, but those jobs pay ten pounds an hour, as opposed to the decent money the pit used to pay,â Shaw-Wright said.