Eco-defence podcast episode two – an interview with Biofuel Watch
This is the second episode of Corporate Watch’s eco-defence podcast miniseries. Recorded at last year’s Earth First! Gathering.
You can listen to the podcast by clicking play below:
Hello, and welcome to episode two of the Corporate Watch podcast. My name’s Tom and this is our Eco-defence miniseries, which we recorded at the Earth First! gathering in the UK. This interview is with Katy and Merry from Biofuel Watch and the Stop Burning Trees Coalition. As with all these interviews, we recorded this outside in the midst of an ecological direct action gathering, you might be able to hear the wind or the noise of people chatting. We hope that this background noise isn’t too distracting, and allows you to hear the atmosphere of the gathering. We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to all the interviews in this mini-series. And that you check out our work at www.corporatewatch.org.
And now back to the gathering…
[Recording cuts to the interview at the Earth First! gathering]
Hey, so I’m here with Katy and Merry from Biofuel Watch and the Stop Burning Trees Coalition. Thanks a lot for talking to us. We’re here at the Earth First gathering on the Sunday. Could you tell us a bit about the organisations that you’re a part of and about the Coalition?
So Biofuel Watch works to campaign against the use of bio-energy. Focusing a lot at the moment on woody biomass. So [are] forests being used to create electricity, but also liquid biofuels from crops like corn and soy. And we campaign to highlight the issues for biodiversity and the climate, and [their] impacts on human health.
And the Stop Burning Trees Coalition is a fairly new coalition. That [began] around the time of Drax’s, one of the biggest biomass companies in the world, AGM with groups from across the north [of England] and the UK coming together for that. And since then, trying to organise a more grassroots campaign against biomass, but in particular, Drax because a lot of us are located in Yorkshire in the north, where Drax is a huge problem. And it’s right on our doorstep. So [we are] working quite closely with lots of different groups from trade unions and trade union councils to health campaigners, and environmental groups campaigning against biomass.
And you were talking a little bit in the workshop you did here about the Axe Drax campaign. Could you talk about that briefly?
Yeah, so Axe Drax as a group came about just before the first lockdown from people in Yorkshire again, wanting to take action against Drax. It’s done various different actions and protests and that sort of thing. And then it’s sort of moving more towards direct action, trying to cause more disruption and respond in a way that seems appropriate to the destruction that Drax is causing. So there’s been a few different actions that have happened with Axe Drax. There’s this train line, that’s a private railway that goes straight into Drax, which brings all the wood pellets from all the trees cut down abroad to be burnt.
There has been a couple of protesters who have disrupted that train line, just trying to bring attention to what Drax is doing, and the amount of harm it’s causing around the world. More recently, there was an action taken by Axe Drax on the day of Drax’s AGM – targeting the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), where they did some creative redecorating of the outside of BEIS bringing attention to the billions in subsidies that BEIS gives Drax that will come out of our energy bills. Drax currently is receiving £2.6 million a day in subsidies from BEIS, which is a horrible misuse of public money. And it’s meant to be going to actual renewables, but instead, it’s going [towards] destroying our forests and polluting our communities. So Axe Drax is a member of the coalition working again on a grassroots level to campaign against biomass, but with a particular focus on Drax because they’re so prevalent in the north.
And for people who aren’t so familiar with biomass – and some of the issues you’ve talked about here – could you explain a bit more about what the campaign is about?
Yeah, so focusing specifically on Drax as that’s our main focus and [it’s] the biggest biomass burner in the UK. So, Drax is currently in receipt of £2.6 million [a day] in subsidies, which comes from BEIS from a surcharge on energy bills – as Merry’s explained – and they get that money because biomass or wood burning, which is how Drax now generates electricity after transitioning from coal is currently classed as renewable. And it’s also classed as carbon neutral under carbon accounting rules. In reality, Drax is the single biggest carbon emitter in the UK. And burning wood actually releases more CO2 for the amount of energy produced than coal does. So that’s also the first lie that is told – that burning wood is carbon neutral. We’re also told that it’s sustainable, and Drax will claim that the wood it uses to make pellets comes from waste wood [and] sawmill residues. But the reality is that the demand for wood from the biomass industry – particularly Drax – is driving forest destruction around the world. The wood that is burnt in Drax comes from overseas. 60% comes from the southern US, [and] the remainder comes from Canada and the Baltic states: Estonia and Latvia.
And in Estonia, there is evidence of Drax sourcing wood illegally, from old-growth forests that are protected. But the majority of the wood that Drax burns is classed as sustainable under the UK sustainability criteria. But that’s because the bar is set so low that it basically means if it’s legal. And because forests aren’t classed as old growth unless they’re over 150 years old, they can use wood from 100-year-old forests and that’s classed as sustainable.
Investigators on the ground have filmed logging trucks [coming out] of forests that have been clearcut and filmed the logs getting taken to the pellet mills to be turned into wood pellets. So this idea that the wood is a byproduct of other forestry industries isn’t true. And one of the things that they would class as waste wood – they would class a tree that isn’t uniform. And so if the tree isn’t completely straight and can’t be used for, say house building… [but] obviously if you’re that tree, or you’re the animal that lives in that tree, [then] that’s not waste wood, it’s your home. And particularly in the southern US, there are environmental justice issues with the pellet mills being cited predominantly in – over 50% of them – in areas that are classed as ‘environmental justice communities’. So poor communities of colour and the health impacts from the pellet mills are horrendous – people suffer[from] cancer, heart disease, and asthma. They can’t put their washing out else it gets dust on it, dust all over their cars. This is impacting communities that are already suffering economic hardship. And there are now issues over here with Drax being in court [CW note, this case was ongoing as of August 2022], they’ve been taken to court by the Health and Safety Executive [in the UK] because the same health issues that are being created by the pellet mills are actually now taking their toll on the workers at Drax in terms of exposure to wood dust. And the pellets once they’ve been processed come over to the UK by ship, obviously there is pollution involved with shipping wood pellets for such long distances. And the pellets come through ports in the north of England, so Liverpool, Hull, Immingham and sometimes to Tyneside. And those have been focal points for action in the north [of England] taken by the Stop Burning Trees Coalition that we’ve set up.
And we heard a little bit about how Drax is planning to make money from BECCS [Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage], would you like to explain what that is?
Yeah, so it gets worse. Because a lot of people aren’t aware of all the issues with biomass… It’s not sustainable and it’s not renewable and it’s not a climate solution. And so already kind of communicating this can be bursting people’s bubbles. But the next thing that Drax [is] trying to claim is – not just that burning wood is carbon neutral – but that by applying BECCS, which is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, they can make wood burning carbon negative. So a lot of people will be familiar with CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage – which the fossil fuel industry has been promising for years is going to make it viable to keep burning fossil fuels and not contributing to climate change because they’re going to capture the carbon and store it underground. So far, that’s only happened on a very limited scale. And [it’s been] incredibly expensive, and not viable as a climate solution, certainly not within the timescales that we’re talking about in terms of needing to reduce emissions. Drax now is claiming that they’re going to use this technology but with bioenergy [CW note – in fact Drax has submitted a proposal to try and do it] proposed to, and they’ll thereby store the carbon from the trees that they burn. And then in theory – by regrowing those trees – create a kind of cycle where they are sucking carbon out of the atmosphere.
One, it’s a completely unproven technology. And at the moment, it’s at very initial stages of technology development. So again, just not at all within the timeframes that we need to be addressing climate change. And then, very worryingly, governments are accepting that this is a technology that works, and plugging it into climate projections and policies. And instead of addressing the need to reduce emissions now. They are saying that we’re going to get net zero by , by being heavily reliant on BECCS technology that doesn’t work, and Drax knows is unlikely to work because the subsidy regime that they are asking for to implement this has the subsidies for capturing carbon, separate to the subsidies for continuing to burn wood – which they are keen to get. And the other thing that’s really important to highlight, is that the whole concept of it being renewable and sustainable is based on a false promise that if you replant trees, they will reabsorb carbon at the same rate as old trees. And that’s not true, increasingly, there’s evidence that old-growth forests, mature forests, are our biggest allies in climate change mitigation, because they’re the biggest absorbers of CO2 and saplings don’t absorb CO2 at the same rate. And so the timescales that we’re talking about for it to be renewable and sustainable – again – they’re not in line with the urgency of needing to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels.
Yeah, so the research shows that it takes about 44 to 104 years to reabsorb the carbon emitted from burning these trees, which is obviously, way, way longer than we have in all the other different estimations of how urgently we need to cut carbon. And it also doesn’t take into account all the biodiversity, the fact that these forests act as vital flood defences for these communities, again, often ‘environmental justice communities’. And also all the biodiversity and the rare and protected species that exist in these forests. So it’s on far too long a timescale for it to have any real impact on us hitting the tipping points, and harming the planet even more, not to mention all the other impacts that come alongside it.
So it’s an unproven technology. And you’ve said lots of reasons why it’s it’s not an adequate way or even a real way of addressing climate change. So what’s in it for the government subsidising these projects? And what’s in it for Drax? Why is it being done?
I mean you look at [what’s going on] and you think, obviously, this shouldn’t exist when you think about it. But there’s a lot of money in it. So, in 2009, when the EU declared that biomass was a form of renewable energy, there were subsidies given out to coal power plants to transform [them] into biomass energy plants. So Drax – having been a huge coal power plant – saw this opportunity to keep going, and to keep making money. It took the subsidies and started transitioning. Since then they’ve been receiving billions in subsidies. By 2027, they’ll have received about £10 billion in renewable energy subsidies to keep burning our forests. There’s a very close relationship between Drax and the government. In the last year or so there were about 70 meetings between DRAX and BEIS [CW note – it was actually 32 meetings with Kwasi Kwarteng after he joined BEIS in 2019, and a total of 69 meetings with ministers since 2020. These figures are from Biofuel Watch’s own research]. Whereas it took the same amount of time for MPs who are resisting biomass to have one meeting with BEIS. So there’s a very clear, close relationship. And you have people who used to sit on Drax’s board, [and] also on the climate change commission designing the government’s net-zero strategy, which funnily enough features BECCS very heavily. And also, I think, because it was something they could already do, they could transition these existing power plants into biomass plants, they can then count that as part of their renewable energy and say: ‘Look, we’re meeting our targets! We’re producing this much renewable energy because Drax is burning trees’, and therefore it counts as renewable energy, and there’s very close relationships between lots of government officials and MPs and Drax. The local Selby MP, Nigel Adams – which is where Drax is located just near Selby – has received tens of thousands in donations from Drax [CW note – also fellow Biomass firm Eggsborough], and then has also gone on to lead biomass working groups in Parliament and push biomass very heavily. So there’s all these lobbying relationships, and there’s money to be made that’s coming out of our energy bills that should be going to genuine renewables.
I think as well, it’s really expedient for the government that they can just look at BECCS and say, ‘Oh, great, we don’t really need to change anything. We don’t need to ask people to change their lifestyles’. ‘We don’t need to decentralise the electricity grid’, you know, ‘we can keep the base loads there using Drax and not invest into the sorts of battery technologies that we need to transition to more sustainable, genuine renewable technologies such as wind and solar’, which are now… the costs of those have massively come down. And whereas Drax is taking money from people’s energy bills through this levy, wind and solar are now paying back. My view is the government doesn’t want our energy systems here to become too decentralised, because it’s a way of controlling people and having power over people if you have that very centralised grid. But also it means we don’t have to really address the actual situation we’re in, which is that we need to start limiting economic growth. We need to look at our economic model, which is constant extraction of resources to make profit for companies. And by relying on these pie in the sky technologies, we can just keep going with business as usual. And ultimately, it’s a way of them trying to appear to be addressing the climate crisis, but within capitalism. Ultimately it can’t work, because we need to start addressing consumption and resource use in terms of economic resources and extraction and looking at different sorts of economies that are sustainable. But governments don’t want to make those changes because they want to keep making money, and their mates being able to make money.
Fundamentally, it’s another form of so-called green capitalism that doesn’t require addressing – as Katy was saying – the root causes of any of these issues, and we can continue [to] export – as England has done for a very, very long time – the harm to other countries, to communities that are already marginalised and harmed by different polluting industries. We can cut down forests abroad, pollute those communities, and then the UK can continue acting as it always has done by harming other communities, continuing these economic systems, these systems of profit, and these very close relationships between all these people in power so that nothing ever really has to change. And I think it fundamentally comes down to that. It’s just green capitalism and greenwashing so that they can continue making money and harming everyone else.
And can you tell us a bit more about campaigning around this issue, about the Stop Burning Trees Coalition and maybe some highlights or inspiring things that have happened during your campaign?
The AGM was a particular highlight because we had Axe Drax’s amazing action outside BEIS coinciding with a very, very noisy demo outside Drax’s AGM in London. And then there were a range of actions across the north along the train line routes, like Hull, and Liverpool [which] are both ports where pellets come in, and then Leeds and York close to Drax. We had very colourful, visually exciting actions. And we’ve also been challenging Drax’s greenwash successfully.
I think one of the really amazing things about the coalition is building these connections between people who are campaigning on different issues, whether it’s [highlighting] the health impacts [of Drax’s business] or working with trade unions and that sort of thing. One of the things that Drax does incredibly well and pours a lot of money into is greenwashing on a local level. So they have very close relationships with schools and universities in the north. And just recently, they were sponsoring this thing called the York Nature Fair, where there were lots of really lovely organisations coming together to educate people more about nature and biodiversity. Drax was the main sponsor of that and had their branding on everything, Propagating this image that they are this lovely, friendly company. So the coalition obviously noticed this and weren’t too thrilled about it, and contacted a lot of the different organisations involved. And they ended up dropping Drax from all their branding and the sponsorship and reassessing their own relationship with Drax because a lot of these organisations – without doing like a lot of their own research into biomass – it can be very easy to say, yeah, that seems fine. It’s classified as renewable. So I think that was a really wonderful thing that happened, just like very quickly and from all these different groups coming together and just educating more people about biomass.
And at the moment, the coalition is working quite heavily on looking at things like a just transition for workers, because Drax is a huge employer in the north. And you can’t deny that people rely on these jobs. And it’s a very big employer. So we’re building up more connections in the local area is something we’ve been putting energy into. Drax workers are currently [as of September 2022] doing wildcat strikes every two weeks, and people from the coalition go down to support those there’s sort of been this veil lifted on the working conditions within Drax because whenever you speak to someone who used to work for Drax they have nothing good to say about them, like really just genuinely awful stuff. But then when people are still working there, it’s hard to speak out. But then you’re hearing people are working in 50-degree conditions every single day and being paid very poorly and all these things. So what we’re trying to do with our work with the trade unions in the coalition is looking at how we could actually transition away from Drax in the north, and how those people could be supported and have genuinely green jobs and not actually be harmed by the shutting down of Drax. Because there’s such a diversity of groups within the coalition, it allows us to have this real diversity of tactics. You’ve got Axe Drax doing more direct action, more disruptive things, and then people working very closely with trade unions and local campaigning groups in the Selby area, and doing these sort of more theatrical, very colourful protests and stuff like that, or just like outreach and talking to more and more people about it, because even in the north, not many people really know what Drax is doing. So yeah, it allows us to have a really wide range of tactics and [a broad] campaigning strategy, which I think is really beautiful and really wonderful.
I was wondering if you could tell me a little about the relationship between Drax and a Canadian company called Pinnacle Pellets.
Yes, so Pinnacle Pellets is a Canadian logging company. They’ve previously been accused of – or known – for logging on unceded indigenous land in Canada home to over 600 indigenous communities with lots of biodiversity and protected species. Last year, Drax purchased Pinnacle Pellets, because they’re expanding into the pellet production business – not happy with just burning everything. They’re also trying to, you know, cut down the trees and turn them into pellets, they’re now the world’s second-biggest pellet producer. So this is all happening in Canada, which is where they’ve been increasingly sourcing wood from. And another part of that is the Head of Forestry in that province [Diana Nicholls], who was deciding which companies could log where has now recently [joined] Drax’s board. And there’s a very clear connection between them. Part of this as well is because Drax has expanded so much in this part of Canada in the logging business, the unions and the workers who have been working in the forestry business have actually published open letters to Drax, basically saying that their huge expansion in that area is putting them out of work and taking jobs away from all the people that been working there for a very long time. And it’s just another example of how Drax is trying to expand and trying to grow its business into cutting down and burning more and more trees around the world and harming communities as it goes.
And you were saying that the campaign back in the UK has been going after the financiers of Drax. Could you say a bit more about that?
We’ve been focusing recently on Barclays in particular, which is one of Drax’s biggest financiers. They’ve come under fire from fossil fuel campaigners because of their investments in fossil fuels. And they’re trying to greenwash their way out of that by saying that they are investing in renewable energy as well. But one of the big things that they are investing in is Drax. So we’re really trying to expose that burning fossil fuels and burning trees amount to the same thing. And Barclays is complicit in both. We recently had a very noisy and lively day at the Barclays AGM in Manchester with people inside disrupting the AGM and causing it to be delayed for quite a long amount of time. And then lots of campaigners outside campaigning on fossil fuels, and biomass burning a really lively, noisy demo. Also, there was some subvertising campaigns with spoof adverts exposing Barclays’ bad practices. We had an E-Action as well calling on Barclays to drop Drax, just to let people know that big biomass is not a climate solution, and the banks need to drop that as well as dropping fossil fuel investments.
And are there any moments in the campaign, or any aspects of the campaign that you think comrades can take inspiration from, or learn from?
I think so. The Coalition is very new. It only came out of the AGM in April , and it sort of just sprung up from people who had been organising against Drax coming together to realise that we can unite all these groups and that by working together, we’re much stronger. And there’s a lot of expertise, and skills and energy from all these different groups around the north of the UK, coming together to campaign against Drax, I think we’re still in our very early stages. So we’re still learning as we go as well. But seeing the power of having different health campaigners and trade unions, environmentalists, and people working on a just transition coming together to campaign makes us so much stronger. If we can unite and see all the different connections between these issues, and how all these different aspects of capitalism and colonial capitalism come together, and feed into one another. Understanding how that all functions together, makes us much stronger, and makes resisting it much better.
And finally, how can people get involved in the campaign and support you?
If people want to find out more about Biofuel Watch, we’ve got loads and loads of really useful information on our website, which is biofuelwatch.org.uk. And also you can sign up to our newsletter and get updates for online actions. You don’t get too many emails. [The mailing list is designed to inform] how you can take action on biomass and how you can learn more. Also, we’ll support you if you want to organise a local screening of a film called ‘Burned: Are trees the new coal?’ Which we absolutely recommend you watch and analyse to learn more about biomass and then try and show it to other people.
If you want to get involved in the Coalition, you can sign up for updates on our website as well stopburningtrees.org. Or you can find us on social media: SBT Coalition. We hold regular welcome meetings, and we’re holding different actions over the coming months, which hopefully you’ll see. And if you’d like to get involved, you can contact us. All of our actions, events, and that sort of thing will be on the website and on social media. So you can find us that way. Come to our welcome meetings and if your group would like to sign up, or you would like to join, [you’re] very welcome. And we can give you as much information as you’d like and support you in taking any sort of action you want against biomass.
Oh, thanks very much. And we’ll put all those links and everything in the notes for the show. And thanks so much for your time. And I hope you enjoy the rest of Earth First!
So you can also join Axe Drax, you can find us on our website, which is axedrax.uk or on social media: axe_drax. And if you want to do direct action, that sort of thing, we’d love to have you there.
Music by Oz Lockley
The featured image is of Drax Power Station, taken by Richard Brownbridge, CC BY-SA 2.0