Skip to main content

Drax Wood Pellets

Volume 817: debated on Monday 13 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the sustainability, and (2) the impact on biodiversity, of the wood pellets used by Drax for electricity generation in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, in 2020 plant-based biomass power generation made up approximately 9% of the total renewable electricity generation in the UK; this includes generation from wood pellets. The biomass that powers such generation meets strict sustainability criteria that the Government set out in legislation. The sustainability criteria include requirements for sustainable sourcing, covering a range of social, economic and environmental issues, including protecting biodiversity. The UK supports only biomass that complies with these strict sustainability criteria.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but I beg to differ. Some of the forests being logged for biomass are among the most ecologically rich and diverse in the world. The North American coastal plain, where most UK biomass imports—particularly Drax—come from, is a global biodiversity hot spot. Clear-cutting for biomass is occurring even in reserves that are designated protected forests. We are paying Drax £832 million a year in subsidies, and at the moment it is the fifth most polluting power station in Europe. I again ask the Minister my Question on the Order Paper. The impact on biodiversity, rather than non-existent as he said, is in fact very severe. When will the Government step up to the plate and do something about this?

I am afraid that I and the noble Baroness will have to disagree on this. Biodiversity is one of the criteria we take into account. We have sent officials out to southern USA, where most of this biomass comes from. This is residue, by-product from the forestry process, so it is not unsustainable. I think the noble Baroness is wrong.

Would it not be more sustainable if my noble friend could source all the wood from fast-growing wood coppice or miscanthus from farmers in North Yorkshire and across Yorkshire? It is closer to Drax and would reduce the carbon footprint, as well as helping local farmers with their growing capacity.

Indeed it would, and we already source some small quantities from the UK, but the noble Baroness needs to look at the size of the forests in southern USA, which are, I think I am right in saying, about the size of the landmass of western Europe. Great and sustainable though North Yorkshire wood is, I suspect we would struggle to meet the quantity required.

Drax claims that burning wood pellets is carbon-neutral because trees absorb as much carbon dioxide when they grow as they emit when they are burned. Is the Minister able to justify that claim from a thorough analysis that includes all supply-chain emissions and with effective CCUS? Would that also have to include hydrogen production?

No. In a sustainably managed forest, which all our biomass comes from, there will be stands of trees of different ages, which will be harvested in gradual sequence and then replaced as they reach maturity. The market price for biomass is far lower than it is for timber and board manufacture, which are far more valuable. These are by-products from the forestry process.

My Lords, part of the problem of how we got here is that the Government took at face value the assurances from biomass energy producers that their products were sustainable. Will the Government now commit to implementing a due diligence exercise in future, so that producers have to prove where they have sourced their product from?

They already say where their product has come from; this evidence is independently audited. Generators must report against the criteria on a monthly basis and Ofgem performs checks to ensure that the criteria are met and deductions in certificate issuance or payments are applied proportionately for the energy produced. We are already doing the checks that the noble Baroness suggests.

My Lords, I declare my conservation interest as in the register. Will my noble friend the Minister be able to put in the public domain these independent assessments of biodiversity loss—or no loss, as he has it? As far as I am concerned, and from what I hear, this is having a severe impact on biodiversity and, in primary forest that has been cut down, on species such as the cerulean warbler, the prothonotary warbler and many others. Is he aware that some of the most deprived communities in the areas of these wood-processing plants are suffering great health problems? Is it right that the Government are subsidising this?

Where the evidence is published, I will certainly make sure that the noble Lord receives a copy of it, but I think he is wrong on this. As I said, these are not primary trees but trees that are being harvested anyway; these are branches and other offcuts from the forestry process. It is sustainably managed and the criteria are checked, including for biodiversity.

Do the Government understand that Drax has been taken to court twice this year for air pollution offences and reported to the OECD for misleading and, frankly, untrue statements about its environmental impacts? Does the Minister think the Government are being a bit naive in not doing due diligence with somebody who actually knows what they are talking about from the green point of view?

I would challenge the noble Baroness’s statement that some of the green groups know what they are talking about, but we make sure that the process is independently audited and all of the biomass is—I repeat—sustainably produced.

My Lords, in relation to transforming the UK’s most carbon-intensive industrial cluster into the world’s first carbon-neutral industrial cluster by 2040, can the Minister tell us not only about safeguarding existing jobs but how many new green skilled jobs this is predicted to bring to my area of Yorkshire and the Humber?

I am afraid the noble Baroness will have to write to me with details of which scheme she is referring to.

My Lords, does the Minister think there might be merit in closing Drax and building a new nuclear power station?

There will certainly be merit in producing new nuclear power stations. I share the noble Lord’s enthusiasm for nuclear power. It was a shame that the Labour Government of which he was a part stopped building nuclear power stations; that was a retrograde step. We are committed to future nuclear, but we can do that alongside sustainable biofuels.

My Lords, the burning of woody biomass produces more carbon emissions per unit of final energy than burning coal. The Drax power station is not decarbonising the energy sector—quite the opposite—and is the UK’s largest single source of carbon emissions. The wood pellets burned by Drax come from whole trees clear-cut logged in natural forests worldwide, not from trees grown for the purpose or from waste by-products as the Minister said. Is it time the Government thought again about the £2.1 million daily subsidy that Drax receives?

At the risk of repeating myself, I think that the noble Baroness is wrong on the points that she makes. The process is independently audited and checked, and we have sent officials out to southern USA to ascertain that the claims are correct, and all the material burned in Drax is sustainably produced.

Since the noble Lord, Lord West, has led us slightly wider on the Question, can I ask why there is not more emphasis on tidal power?

The noble Lord gives me a great cue to talk about the contracts for difference scheme that we launched just this morning, which for the first time allows tidal power to bid. I completely agree with the noble Lord, and we are doing it.

The Minister mentioned the contracts for difference, which include onshore wind. As he knows from the Bill that we discussed two Fridays ago, there are still planning issues with onshore wind development, particularly with replacement of current onshore wind. Will the Government look a little more sympathetically at supporting my Bill?

We had an extensive and informative discussion with the noble Baroness on her Bill, and onshore wind, as I reminded her at the time, is included in the contracts for difference round that we launched this morning.