Greenwashing 101: Drax's Pellet Problem

Research finds UK energy giant Drax is burning BC’s ancient forests and calling it sustainable

Watershed Sentinel staff, with files from Biofuelwatch

Burns Lake BC log conversion yard. Photo: StandEarth

Burns Lake BC log conversion yard. Photo: Stand.Earth

British Columbia’s primary forests are being logged to produce wood pellets that will be shipped to the UK and burned to produce electricity. 

Energy giant Drax, which owns seven pellet mills in BC, has received over £6 billion in environmental subsidies from the British government, because the energy it produces by burning trees is deemed to be emission-free and renewable. 

As if this weren’t incredible enough, a recent report shows conclusively that Drax’s BC pellet mills are still using not only logs from primary forests (natural forests of any age that have never been logged) but also from irreplaceable old growth areas where logging is currently supposed to be deferred.

The provincial NDP government has repeatedly made promises to stop logging old growth, launched reviews and panels, and made commitments and pledges to change to a more sustainable forestry model where ecosystems and biodiversity are prioritized. In 2022, a panel of five forestry experts mapped out 2.6 million hectares of Priority Deferral Areas: “high priority rare, ancient and big tree old growth that are at risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.”  

These are the very last forests that should be compressed into pellets and burned at Drax Group PLC’s biomass power station – the world’s largest – in Yorkshire, UK. Drax’s seven BC pellet mills produced over 1.3 million tonnes of pellets in 2021 (almost 40% of Canada’s total pellet production). 

A recent report shows conclusively that Drax’s BC pellet mills are still using not only logs from primary forests (natural forests of any age that have never been logged) but also from irreplaceable old growth areas where logging is currently supposed to be deferred.

About one quarter of the woody material that goes into Drax’s pellet-producing plants in BC comes directly from logging operations in the form of logs or wood chips. This amounted to around 430,000m3 of wood in 2023, with logs accounting for almost 60% of this volume. The rest is byproduct such as sawdust from sawmills. 

On its website, Drax states that its Canadian sourced biomass “is sustainable and legally harvested.” And yet, a recent investigation uncovered clear evidence that throughout 2023 Drax regularly sourced whole trees from cutblocks containing old growth forest, including big tree old growth and ancient forest within provincially designated Priority Deferral Areas. 

Researchers from Conservation North, Bulkley Valley Stewardship Coalition, and Biofuelwatch examined records extracted from the BC government’s database to determine the origins of the biomass arriving at Drax pellet mills in 2023. BC’s Harvest Billing System (HBS) tracks all logging activities in the province, on public or private land. The researchers extracted HBS data about each load arriving at Drax pellet plants in 2023, including what material came from which supplier, in what volume, and what timber mark each load arrived with. (A timber mark is a short reference code that notes, among other information, the location and type of land tenure where the timber was harvested.) 

Researchers compared this information to BC government spatial data for old growth forest and Priority Deferral Areas. The data show that a high volume of logs arriving at Drax’s BC pellet mills in 2023 were from old growth forest, including Priority Deferral Areas. 

On average, nearly 40% of the total corresponding land areas of the timber marks with spatial data that Drax sourced logs from in 2023 were old growth forests, and nearly 20% of the total land area fell within Priority Deferral Areas. 


A dangerous loophole

In 2022 alone, Biofuelwatch says, Drax’s facility generated approximately 12 million tonnes of CO2, which Drax describes as “carbon neutral.” These emissions effectively don’t count on paper, because of a loophole in international carbon accounting, which says that the carbon impact is counted when/where a forest is removed, not when/where it’s burned. 

The actual impacts on BC’s forests, the  Earth’s atmosphere, and even on human health, are all too real.

 


With files from Logging What’s Left: How Drax’s pellet mills are sourcing logs from British Columbia’s rarest old growth forests, February 2024, by Conservation North, Bulkley Valley Stewardship Coalition, and Biofuelwatch.

Read the full report at www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2024/drax-bc-pellets-investigation

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