A recent report by the BBC’s long standing current affairs ‘Panorama’ programme stated that Drax, a power company that has received £6bn in UK green subsidies to date since it converted units from coal plants to pelletised wood, is still burning wood sourced from some of the world's ‘rarest’ forests. Panorama obtained documents from the Ministry of Forests in British Columbia, Canada, that show the company took more than 40 000 tonnes of wood from so-called "old-growth" forests in 2023. The TV programme focused primarily on the burning of ‘rare’ or of old wood from forests that are outside the criteria used to determine what kind of forest growth can legitimately be harvested as being truly carbon neutral.

Following the BBC investigation, Drax denied taking wood from primary forests but said it would not apply for further logging licences in the province. In 2023, said the company, only 2.5% of the material burned at the power station came from British Columbia.

Drax and UK policy

In 2023 Drax produced about 5% of the UK's electricity and is a key part of the government's drive to meet its climate targets. Drax receives payments because the electricity produced from burning pellets is classified as renewable and treated as emission-free. In fact, the power station emits about 12 million tonnes of carbon a year, but under international rules covering biomass sustainability and carbon neutrality the UK does not have to count these emissions.

The 6.5 million tonnes of wood pellets burned by Drax each year are all produced overseas, many from Drax's 17 pellet plants in the USA and Canada.

In 2022, the BBC revealed that the company had obtained logging licences in British Columbia, and filmed logs being taken from what the BBC said was primary forest to a pellet plant owned by Drax. ‘Primary forests’ are natural forests that have not been significantly disturbed by human activity.

Drax response

In its official response, Drax says its wood pellets are ‘sustainable and legally harvested’. It stated that at least some of the BBC’s information comes from old reports that are no longer pertinent and its practices have been brought up to date.

It further stated: “We are confident our biomass is sustainable and legally harvested and meets the requirements of our 2019 sourcing policy.

“The document the BBC has referred to was published in 2017, was not a policy and is now obsolete. As a responsible business we keep our sourcing policy and practices under regular review so that that they take account of evolving forest dynamics, legislation, policy, and science.

“In October 2023, Drax made the decision to stop sourcing wood fibre directly from harvest sites which overlap with Old Growth Deferral Areas, in response to policy changes introduced by the government of British Columbia. Work to implement this decision through the supply chain is ongoing. As a direct consequence of our decision, deliveries to Drax from the fourth harvest area originally cited by the BBC were stopped.   

“The BBC has also stated that since our October 2023 decision, Drax took material from 12 harvest sites that include or ‘overlap’ with Old Growth Priority Deferral Areas’. This statement is misleading because Drax’s policy is to no longer directly source wood fibre from within these harvest sites where there is overlap with Old Growth Deferral Areas.

“Fibre that Drax has sourced from publicly owned forests in British Columbia have been designated as being available to harvest legally and sustainably by the government of British Columbia, alongside First Nations. We do not own forests or sawmills and are not responsible for the licensing and harvesting of forests.”

Image: Aerial view of the Drax Power Station (courtesy of Drax)