A large donation to the Labour Party from wood-burning giant Drax has raised concerns among campaigners over the sway of big carbon emitters over Parliament.
The payment from the former coal-fired power station was registered on September 12 last year, and published in December in the Electoral Commission register of political donations.
Labour has declined to comment on receipt of the donation.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer has yet to articulate his party’s position on burning wood for electricity – or to clarify whether Labour accepts donations from polluting companies.
DeSmog revealed earlier this week that Drax is applying intense pressure across government departments to influence energy policy in its favour.
The latest donation shows the company continues to exert influence across a broad political spectrum – including the Labour party, whose ‘Green New Deal’ sets out to decarbonise the UK by 2030.
Drax earned £893 million in direct government subsidies in 2021 to burn wood pellets at its North Yorkshire power plant, which generates around 12 percent of the UK’s renewable electricity.
Despite being the UK’s largest single source of carbon dioxide, the electricity from Drax’s plant is treated as carbon neutral, on the grounds – hotly disputed by green groups – that trees can be planted to reabsorb the carbon.
It is awaiting a decision on an estimated £31.7 billion in public funding from 2027, to create ‘carbon negative’ energy from bioenergy with carbon capture with storage (BECCS), which would bury emissions from burning wood under the North Sea.
Molly Griffith-Jones, a climate activist and Labour party member from Yorkshire, told DeSmog she was “ashamed” to learn that Labour had accepted the donation.
“I’m not comfortable with leadership figures cosying up to big polluters and corporate interests,” she told DeSmog. “Drax are currently trying to secure billions of pounds in future subsidies to continue burning trees for decades to come and are clearly hoping big money will firmly place Labour in their pocket.”
Robert Noyes from campaign group Fossil Free Parliament said the donation was “deeply concerning”.
“Labour’s pledge to offer a fairer, greener future is undermined by this willingness to accept money from a company that is responsible for forest destruction, environmental injustice, biodiversity loss and climate-wrecking emissions,” he said. “We need urgent action from our MPs to cut emissions if we are to prevent climate catastrophe, yet Parliament continues to have an open-door policy for the fossil fuel and biomass industries.”
The Labour Party has so far failed to state whether it would continue subsidy support for Drax should it win the next General Election, which is due to take place by December 2024 at the latest.
DeSmog understands that Labour is working on a position for the manifesto on biomass and BECCS, and its role within the energy sector, but the party is yet to announce when this will be published.
The company has sponsored major events at both Conservative and Labour Party conferences.
A campaigner was ejected from a Labour Party event sponsored by the power station operator last year, after criticising the company’s use of biomass, at a debate on the UK’s net zero target on the fringes of the party conference in Liverpool.
Labour was also criticised in 2021 for holding a Drax-sponsored conference event on building “a zero carbon, lower cost energy future”, which was branded by the Green Party as “green spin at its worst”.
Drax has also sponsored multiple Conservative Party conference events, including a 2022 panel discussion on “levelling up” led by The Spectator magazine.
Drax told DeSmog that sponsoring Labour is “part of the engagement we have with all the major political parties” and it was “important to engage with a range of stakeholders”.
However, the recent donation appears at odds with its own company policy, included in its latest annual report, that states “Drax makes no political donations”.
Drax also stated that the September donation was for “sponsoring events and buying tickets to attend events organised by the Labour party”. However, the amount is not listed as a sponsorship, but as a donation on the Electoral Commission’s register, which – if incorrect – contravenes the commission’s rules.
A spokesperson for the commission said political parties had “a legal responsibility to ensure their quarterly reports are accurate, so sponsorship donations should always be reported as being such”.
Labour did not respond to DeSmog’s request for a comment.
It is not illegal for carbon-intensive companies to donate to political parties in the UK, but the practice has come under increasing scrutiny over fears that the heavily subsidised fossil fuel industry is paying for political favour.
A 2021 Guardian investigation found that the Conservatives had received £1.3m from fossil fuel interests and climate sceptics since 2019, prompting Labour MP Richard Burgon to announce his intention to present a parliamentary bill to ban MPs from taking oil and gas money.
Fossil fuel donations identified in the investigation were made overwhelmingly to the Conservatives. DeSmog also revealed last year that £650,000 was given to the Tory party by companies and donors linked to the aviation industry, and exposed the fracking industry’s donations to Liz Truss’ leadership campaign.
Labour supporter Merry Dickinson of the Stop Burning Trees Coalition told DeSmog she is “tempted to leave” the party over the news that the party received funding from Drax.
Campaigners and experts oppose Drax’s bid to create the world’s largest carbon capture plant, citing potential harms to wildlife and poor mis-use of land for energy crops. Studies have also questioned the ability of BECCS to remove millions of tonnes of carbon a year.
“By accepting this money, it suggests that Labour is open to Drax’s greenwashing and their attempts to get billions more in subsidies through BECCS. It is vital that our politicians stay free from corporate interests, so that they can act in the interests of people and the planet, not capital.”