Drax Denies ‘Conflict Of Interest’ Over Lobbyist’s Climate Advisory Role

Environmentalists raise concern that a senior policy manager for the biomass producer may have had input on UK climate policy.
Drax power station in Selby, Yorkshire. Credit: Scott Masterton/Alamy.

The question of Drax’s influence on national climate policy has come under renewed scrutiny after it emerged for a second time in two months that a senior PR executive advised on government climate strategy with an apparent conflict of interest.

Rebecca Heaton, Drax’s head of sustainability and policy, announced in July she would be stepping down four months early from her position on the Climate Change Committee (CCC). Heaton had faced mounting pressure from campaigners questioning the compatibility of her role on the CCC’s mitigation committee with her position at the taxpayer-funded biomass company.

DeSmog can now also reveal that Heaton’s colleague on Drax’s PR and public affairs team, Tanisha Beebee, advised on the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget over the course of several meetings last year. In the December 2020 report, Beebee was listed as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)’s senior policy advisor, despite apparently having already landed a job as Drax’s government policy senior manager.

Beebee, who sat on the committee’s industry policy steering group for the 2033-2037 carbon budget, would therefore have been party to privileged consultations regarding the future of the UK’s energy mix — while potentially knowing she was about to start work with a company that could benefit from knowledge of these discussions.

The CCC has denied that either Beebee or Heaton were guilty of a conflict of interest. A spokesperson for the independent government advisor on climate change told DeSmog that Heaton, due to her position with Drax, was not allowed to contribute during discussions on bioenergy. The steering group Beebee had joined, the spokesperson added, was an “ad hoc” group and it was therefore “not practical” to subject such a position to rigorous scrutiny over conflicts of interest.

A recent study on biomass raised concerns over the energy source’s sustainability and efficacy. Biomass, which received £832 million in subsidies last year, is considered a “renewable” energy source in the UK. However, it produces 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year. 

Phil MacDonald, chief operating officer of energy think tank Ember, told DeSmog: “Recent science has increasingly called into question the benefits of burning wood for power, and so there must be a clear firewall between biomass energy companies and the government’s scientific advisors.”

“Drax receives more than £800m in government subsidies each year,” MacDonald continued, “and these potential conflicts of interest add to concerns that the taxpayer isn’t getting value for money.”

Sixth Carbon Budget

Concerns about Heaton’s potential conflict of interest intensified in March this year, when Lord Randall, the former special environment advisor to former Prime Minister Theresa May, called an investigation into an alleged conflict of interest posed by Heaton’s dual roles. 

The National Audit Office ultimately decided not to pursue the investigation, which auditor Gareth Davies said was outside of the watchdog’s remit. In a letter to Randall, Davies noted that the CCC had been “conscious of the need to manage potential conflicts” and there was “evidence that appropriate steps have been taken when specific issues have arisen”.

Reacting to the news of Heaton’s departure, Lord Randall told DeSmog he was “pleased to see that this potential conflict of interest has now been resolved” as a result of her new appointment as head of sustainability at energy supplier Ovo. However, he added that the question of the UK taxpayer subsidising the biomass industry “at the current very high level” was “still ongoing”.

Drax’s subsidies for biomass end in 2027, but the company is seeking further public funding to convert its biomass power plants into what it claims will be the biggest bioenergy, carbon capture and storage (BECCS) project in the world. Drax says its use of BECCS will make it “carbon negative” by removing more carbon emissions from the atmosphere than it creates, though these claims have been heavily disputed by a number of NGOs. Concerns raised over the nascent technology also include questions about its efficacy, technical barriers, expense, land usage and impacts on biodiversity.

The government’s most recent carbon budget, published when Heaton was still on the committee, recommends significantly ramping up the use of BECCS in the 2030 and 2040s to remove 45m-95m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year by 2050. 

Conflict of Interest?

On top of the concerns raised about Heaton, DeSmog has now learned that Beebee, in her capacity as the CBI’s senior policy advisor for energy and climate change, sat in on industry policy steering group meetings in July, August, and September last year. 

Beebee was one of 20 individuals representing 16 industry organisations on the steering group of think tanks, trade associations, and charities which include the International Energy Agency, Oil and Gas UK, and Green Alliance. No energy companies are included on the list of members.

The CCC said that the group’s contributions fed into the Sixth Carbon Budget report and into two reports by Leeds University and Energy Systems Catapult. Members were tasked with answering which policy mechanisms would most effectively enable decarbonisation of industry in line with the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget pathways.

Beebee officially joined Drax as its government senior policy manager in November. Multiple sources, however, have told DeSmog that a senior role of this type would require at least a three month notice period, making it probable that Beebee had interviewed and been hired for her new role at Drax when she took part in the steering group meetings on August 16 and September 15.

Beebee referred DeSmog to Drax when asked to confirm this. The company did not respond to questions of when the interviews had taken place, or when the role had been accepted. “Tanisha Beebee didn’t work for Drax during the period in question, and so there was no conflict of interest,” a spokesperson said.

While there are no formal minutes of the meetings, the CCC described the group as “an ad hoc, unpaid group of experts, brought together to offer their informed opinion to the main committee” and that their opinions were “extremely valuable” but did not replace the “expert opinion of the Committee itself”.

The CCC told DeSmog it was “not concerned about Ms Beebee’s participation in this informal advisory group given the range of stakeholder engagement we undertake and the high level of professional scrutiny we apply to all views provided by experts, academic studies, consultancy reports and through calls for evidence”.

Frances Howe of campaign group Biofuelwatch said: “Tanishee Beebee’s dual appointments with Drax and the Climate Change Committee provide the company with another opportunity to influence government policy about the feasibility and sustainability of its biomass burning and its plans for unproven BECCS technology to capture and store carbon from burning wood.”

“While it’s unlikely that Drax and its collaborators will succeed in capturing and storing carbon on anything like the scale they claim, there is a risk that vast amounts of public money and time will continue to be spent on the false solutions of biomass and BECCS.”

Drax Denies ‘Conflict Of Interest’ Over Lobbyist’s Climate Advisory Role
Phoebe is Senior Reporter at DeSmog. She previously trained as a news reporter across local titles in Essex and East London, with her work since appearing in the Independent, Evening Standard, The Sun Online, Deutsche Welle, and The Local and Prospect Magazine.

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