The power station operator Drax is applying intense pressure across government departments to influence energy policy in its favour, DeSmog can reveal.
In particular, the biomass giant is pressing the government to deliver key decisions that could hasten the adoption of a costly and controversial ‘carbon negative’ technology.
The set of documents seen by DeSmog – which include summaries of meetings, emails and memos – show the company lobbying senior ministers and pushing for answers on key bioenergy consultations and strategies that could impact Drax’s future.
The energy firm earned £893 million in 2021 from public subsidies to burn wood pellets at its North Yorkshire power plant, which generates around 12 percent of the UK’s renewable electricity.
One civil servant characterises a call with Drax as “the next one in a series of lobbying attempts” before an online meeting on the topic of the controversial carbon capture and storage technology known as BECCs.
The meeting in question, which took place on 9 March 2022, was between the financial secretary to the Treasury, Lucy Frazer, Drax chief executive Will Gardiner and then senior public affairs manager Ed Leech.
Environmentalists are alarmed at Drax’s strong push for BECCS, which would see the power plant capture the carbon emissions from burning wood pellets and bury them under the North Sea in a bid to lower its emissions.
Experts say the technology is costly – and unproven. Green campaigners also dispute the bioenergy firm’s claim that the wood it burns is sustainable. They point out that forests can not be replaced quickly enough to make the energy source ‘carbon neutral’, as the fuel is currently treated in the UK and EU.
“It is unsurprising that Drax is so keen to lobby the government at this crucial moment – their billions in public subsidies are running out and their profits are at stake,” Mair Floyd-Bosley, senior policy officer for bioenergy at environmental campaign group RSPB, told DeSmog.
“What is disappointing is the government’s willingness to give Drax this level of access, while ignoring scientists’ and campaigners’ rightful warnings, and the advice of many other stakeholders who agree large-scale reliance on BECCS is not sustainable.
Greenpeace has also raised concerns that its BECCS stance, which is referenced in the files, has been grossly misrepresented.
In the briefing shared with Frazer prior to the meeting, the NGO is cited as a supporter of the technology – despite in 2021 signing a letter to the government warning of the risks of BECCS.
‘Series of Lobbying Attempts’
The cache of files, which were obtained by a Freedom of Information request, show that Drax is applying pressure in multiple government departments to influence the government’s policy on BECCS technology, which the company claims will capture at least eight million tonnes of carbon emissions a year.
Notes shared ahead of the meeting between Frazer and Gardiner reveal officials at the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) were “regularly meeting with Drax to discuss the costs and benefits of BECCS” and that civil servants had been “working internally to determine the government position on this”.
As well as meeting Frazer and Kwarteng, the documents reference a recent introduction between Gardiner and former climate minister Greg Hands.
Emails also reveal Gardiner had initially requested a meeting with Helen Whately, then exchequer secretary to the Treasury, whose husband Marcus Whately runs biomass power plant Estover (she excused herself from the meeting).
Documents also reveal the involvement of high-ranking civil servants such as the Treasury’s BECCS policy lead, who is a correspondent in the email exchanges.
Drax’s meeting with Frazer was summarised as an opportunity to bring the financial secretary up to speed on carbon capture, and references Gardiner pushing the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, the government’s main mechanism for supporting low-carbon electricity generation, as well as Drax’s plans for expansion to work in Canada and the South East of the U.S.
Most revealing are the notes circulated ahead of the online call that sum up a previous meeting held between Drax chief executive Will Gardiner and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng the week earlier.
The file states that Drax is “keen to see progress on BECCS Business Model asap” and appears to set a deadline for a government decision, asking for this to be negotiated by “the middle of next year” [around June 2023].
Gardiner’s request refers to a consultation run by BEIS, which sets out the government’s preferred business model to incentivise the use of BECCS within the UK.
Almuth Ernsting, a campaigner for Biofuelwatch, says the whole consultation exercise was “tailor-made for Drax”, with the position put forward by BEIS in the document “identical to what Drax had previously asked for”.
In addition, the files show Drax pushing for the publication of the UK’s biomass strategy, scheduled to appear in 2022 but now delayed until later this year.
“Drax wants to see the Business Model set out as part of [the] biomass strategy due at the end of this year,” read the notes. “Our SoS [former Secretary of State Kwasi Kwarteng] said this won’t be as part of the strategy but could come later.”
According to Ernsting, the strategy should be confirmed before any government decision on a funding framework for BECCS. However, the consultation on BECCS funding was published in August 2022, several months after the meeting with Gardiner.
“BEIS basically did what Drax had asked them earlier that year, i.e. tried pushing through this Business Framework ahead of the Strategy,” said Ernsting.
DeSmog previously revealed with The Guardian that Drax and fossil fuel producers met with officials at BEIS nine times more often than with green groups after Kwarteng took over as business secretary.
The documents released in response to DeSmog’s FOI show Drax continued to exert a high level of influence on the government a year after those revelations. One civil servant’s email reminds Frazer and the other attendees that Drax is “a key stakeholder in the energy space” and tells officials to be “in listening mode”. The sender also apologised to Drax for having to initially postpone the call, adding: “We don’t like to move meetings with important stakeholders such as yourselves”.
“These documents obtained by Desmog back up our suspicions,” Ernsting said. “They show the company has indeed been lobbying ministers on this and has been very much able to influence their thinking.”
Greenpeace has expressed its concern that the FOI shows the government grossly misrepesents the campaign group’s stance on BECCS.
The ‘background information’ notes shared with the minister describe Greenpeace as a supporter of the technology. They reference a 2021 paper, in which Greenpeace cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s position that “a small proportion of emissions is likely to be unavoidable and must be offset by carbon removal technologies, such as tree-planting, BECCS or direct air carbon capture with storage (DACCS).”
However, Dr Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK told DeSmog the quote was taken entirely out of context. It was worrying, he said, that the Treasury and Drax were “seriously focused on such speculative thinking”.
“The extract is simply referencing the IPCC position that carbon dioxide removal of some form will be needed to hit 1.5C alongside a list of proposed technologies,” Parr said.
“It’s not an endorsement of BECCS and certainly not of Drax specifically. It takes dizzying levels of spin to suggest otherwise and to do so is dishonest.”
Energy think tank Ember says BECCS cannot yet be relied upon to provide true net negative emissions, and has urged the government to “proceed cautiously” until the carbon savings are guaranteed.
A spokesperson for the Treasury said: “As a significant energy generator, Drax is an important stakeholder on energy policy. It is right that Ministers meet regularly with stakeholders and listen to their proposals, and that officials are polite when meetings have to be moved. The Government is keen to hear the views of all stakeholders and it is not correct to say that Drax has an undue level of influence.”
Ember’s estimated cost of BECCS was “not recognised” by the Treasury as no decision had yet been made, they added. All projects under consideration would be “subject to full assessment including cost, value for money and negative emissions potential”.
Drax did not respond to DeSmog’s multiple requests for comment. However, the company gave the following quote to The Guardian, which has run its own story on DeSmog’s findings: “As the UK’s largest renewable power generator by output, Drax plays a vital role in keeping the lights on for millions of homes and businesses. It’s therefore essential for Drax to engage with government and other key stakeholders on matters relating to energy security and its future business strategy.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was also approached for comment.