The Drax coal and biomass fired power station in North Yorkshire, one the UK's biggest point source emitters of greenhouse gases. Photo: Andrew Davidson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
#AxeDrax: campaigners unite for climate justice against coal and biofueled deforestation
18th October 2016
The Drax power station in North Yorkshire is among Britain's greatest greenhouse gas emitters, writes Almuth Ernsting. Not only is it burning some 6 million tonnes of coal every year, it is also burning its way through forests in the USA and other countries as it converts to biomass-fired units, rewarded by £1.3 million a day in subsidies. Join the #AxeDrax protest this weekend!
In 2015, Drax's biomass subsidies amounted to around £470m, whereas its profits were a mere £46m. Without the subsidies, it would not be economically viable for Drax to remain open.
On 22nd October, activists against coal, against forest destruction for bioenergy, and for climate justice will be protesting outside the UK's biggest power station: Drax in North Yorkshire.
10 years ago, Drax was the site of the first Climate Camp, a direct action movement against the root causes of climate change.
Several hundred people camped in a field 'in the shadow of Drax' to take part in a week of discussions, workshops and - above all - protests against the country's single biggest carbon emitter.
It was the start of six years of annual Climate Camps and year-round actions and protests against those most responsible for causing climate change in the UK, and experience which has continued to inspire and inform ongoing actions for climate justice.
Drax has been burning millions of tonnes of coal every year since 1974. In 2008, Drax started to ramp up what had previously been relatively small-scale co-firing of biomass. Since 2013, Drax has been gradually converting half its units to wood pellets.
Drax's subsidised biomass allows it to keep on burning coal
But far from replacing coal, Drax's partial biomass conversion is allowing the plant to avoid closure under EU emissions regulations, and to continue to burn millions of tonnes of coal a year, long-term.
The UK Government has announced a phase-out of coal burning for electricity by 2025 - which of course would mean ten more years of coal burning in power stations, which could and should be stopped immediately.
Even this unambitious aim is far from a firm government commitment - and Drax represents one of the biggest obstacles to any phase-out of coal burning for electricity. In 2015, Drax's biomass subsidies amounted to around £470m, while its profits were a mere £46m. Without the subsidies, it would not be economically viable for Drax to remain open.
And even if Drax's biomass burning was carbon neutral and sustainable - which is far from the case - stopping the £1.3 million biomass subsidies which the company receives every single day would still be vital for ending coal burning in the UK.
But Drax's biomass burning is far from carbon neutral or sustainable. It relies on the same extractive model as coal mining, with similarly disastrous effects: Drax is burning some 7 million tonnes of wood a year - more than the UK's total annual production.
Biodiverse wetland forests reduced to pellets
Virtually all of the wood is imported, most of it from the southern US. There, conservation NGOs such as Dogwood Alliance are campaigning against the destruction of some of the last remaining coastal wetland forests to make pellets which are shipped to Europe.
Last year, around 82% of those went to the UK. Drax is currently the only UK power station burning imported wood pellets, though at least two new big import-reliant biomass power developments are in the pipeline. Many of Drax's pellets are sourced from the clearcutting of wetland forests.
Drax claims that these pellets are all sourced from sawmill and forestry waste. However the Dogwood Alliance has traced trucks loaded with whole trees clear-cut from from lowland swamp forests on the coastal plain of North Carolina being transported to pellet mills. In turn, the pellet mills declare that their supply contracts are for power stations in the UK.
Those are amongst the world's most biodiverse temperate forests and aquatic ecosystems. They play a vital role in regulating the rainfall and water cycle - essential in a region at a particular risk of flooding, such as this year's disastrous flood in Louisiana. Local communities are seriously affected by wood dust, other pollution and noise from pellet plants. Wood dust is a known carcinogen and also linked to allergic and non-allergic respiratory and nasal diseases.
For the climate, burning wood pellets is no better than burning coal. In fact, the smokestack CO2 emissions from burning biomass are even greater than those from burning coal, per unit of electricity generated.
There are no universally agreed methods for comparing the full long-term lifecycle impacts of coal and biomass but the question exactly which is worse is ultimately futile. The urgency of the climate crisis means that we cannot afford to keep burning coal (nor other fossil fuels), nor to further destroy and degrade forests and other ecosystems.
Colombia's El Cerrejón mine spreads poverty and destruction
According to Drax's latest Annual Report, Drax burned around 6 million tonnes of coal in 2015, 46% of it from UK, with the remainder imported.
Investigations by Coal Action Network in 2015 showed that much of the UK coal comes from opencast mines in Northumberland in the north of England, with imports coming from Russia, the US, and Colombia. Some of Drax's coal comes from the notorious El Cerrejón mine in La Guajira, northern Colombia. Cerrejón is Colombia's biggest opencast coal mine and one of the largest in the world.
Earlier this year, Witness for Peace organised a delegation to La Guajira, which met, amongst others, with members of the Comité Cívico por la Dignidad de La Guajira. In recent years, at least 4,770 indigenous Wayuu children in the department have died from malnutrition. The Comité Cívico has shown a direct link between the ever-expanding Cerrejón mine and the widespread malnutrition which has led to those deaths.
Since the mine opened in 1985, the shares of agriculture and livestock, of industry and of commerce in La Guajira's economy have steeply declined. Mining now accounts for 61% of the department's GDP, but a mere 3% of jobs.
Food production has collapsed, unemployment has rocketed, and child malnutrition and anaemia rates are far above the average across the wider region. The mine is diverting rivers, depleting freshwater resources and destroying forests, with half the department now at risk of desertification.
Shutting down Drax is a necessity for stopping coal burning - with all its horrific impacts in the UK and far beyond - and to stop the destruction of the unique forests that supply its wood fuel.
Also on The Ecologist in response to this article: 'UK biomass power industry is a vital part of the renewable energy mix' by Nina Skroupska / Renewable Energy Association'.
- If you are in the UK, please join the demonstration to #AxeDrax on 22nd October 2016.
- If you live outside the UK, or cannot get to the event for other reasons, then you can take a photograph of yourselves with an #AxeDrax banner or placard and upload it to the Facebook events page, or email it to Biofuelwatch so that we can upload it.
- You can also tweet your photo with #AxeDrax, @Draxnews (i.e. Drax) and @beisgovuk (that's the government department responsible for the subsidies).
Almuth Ernsting is a co-director of Biofuelwatch and has been reseasrching and campaigning against large-scale industrial biofuels and biomass electricity since 2006.
This article is a version of one previously published on Yes to Life, No to Mining.
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