The UK’s new climate minister is facing criticism for his support of Drax, ahead of a government decision that could lock in decades of wood burning for energy.
Graham Stuart, who joined the newly formed cabinet this week, is regarded as a green Conservative who has described climate change as “one of the greatest challenges we will face in this lifetime”.
His appointment has given some hope to those concerned over the views of his new boss, energy secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has a history of dismissing climate change and supports fossil fuel expansion.
However, campaigners say Stuart’s green credentials are undermined by his support for wood-pellet burning at Drax power station in Selby, located around 30 miles from his Yorkshire constituency of Beverley and Holderness.
A blog post on Stuart’s website describes Drax as providing “the most renewable power of any single location in the UK”, and “vital for ensuring the UK’s energy security”.
Drax power station, which generates around 6 percent of the UK’s electricity, is in fact the single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the country. Despite this, it is treated as a renewable energy source in UK and EU law, based on the disputed notion that new tree growth will replace any lost carbon emissions from wood used for fuel.
Drax receives over £800 million a year in subsidies for its “renewable” energy. The company is now bidding to build the world’s largest bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) facility, which it claims will capture 8 million tonnes of carbon a year from 2030 by burying emissions from burning biomass underground.
A consultation on the project closed this week, and the bid is due to be assessed by the planning inspectorate in the coming months, with a final decision expected next year. The proposed plant is estimated to require £31.7 billion in subsidy.
Responding to the appointment, Almuth Ernsting, from campaign group Biofuelwatch, said “Sadly, the new climate minister’s expressions of support for Drax fits well in government intent on aiding carbon polluters invested in fracking and offshore oil and gas.”
The MP paid a visit to Drax power station in May, commenting that Drax’s “ambitious decarbonisation project” would “help the UK achieve its aim of being Net Zero by 2050 and help make Yorkshire and the Humber a global leader for green investment and innovation”.
Stuart’s appointment has also been welcomed by Drax. Richard Gwilliam, chair of the Humber Energy Board and head of cluster development at Drax, told BusinessLive: “It is great to see Humber MP Graham Stuart appointed to the new cabinet with responsibility for climate”.
He added: “I look forward to working with him to deliver the world’s first net zero industrial cluster in our region.”
Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage is included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s mitigation pathways to keep temperatures below 1.5C, but experts have highlighted issues over the high cost and technical barriers facing large-scale deployment.
Stuart has not publicly voiced concerns over BECCS. He did not respond to DeSmog’s request for comment.
Campaigners insist that biomass cannot help the UK achieve its net zero targets;
“Burning wood emits no less CO2 than burning coal per unit of energy,” Ernsting of Biofuelwatch said. “As hundreds of scientists have pointed out, when wood sourced from forest logging is burned, that carbon remains in the atmosphere for many decades if not centuries, until it has been sequestered by new trees growing back. We do not have that time if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
“Having a climate minister who does not understand this fact – as evidenced by his expressed support for Drax – is of serious concern, given that the government will soon decide on large new subsidies of price guarantees that will determine the future of Drax and with it the future of many forests in North America and the Baltic States.”
Other Yorkshire MPs maintain a close relationship with Drax. Nigel Adams, the Conservative MP for Selby and Ainsty, where Drax is based, chaired the all party parliamentary group on biomass until 2017.
Adams has accepted tens of thousands of pounds worth of donations from the biomass industry to attend the US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) annual conference in Miami – receiving at least £17,000 from Drax in total, according to the register of MPs’ interests.
When previously challenged over donations, Adams has described concerns over the donations as an attempt to “smear the biomass industry and those associated with it”.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Drax were approached for comment.