In a nutshell, this is the dilemma that energy giant Drax now faces:

The case against burning wood pellets to generate electricity appears, on the surface, to be getting stronger and stronger all the time.

The case in favour of capturing emissions of CO2 from burning biomass, and permanently sequestering that CO2 in depleted oil and gas reservoirs (known as Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage – BECCS), get stronger all the time.

Albeit not for good reasons.

And that makes it a global dilemma, the horns of which DRAX is still uncomfortably straddling.

  1. Why I’ve been working with Drax

My ‘journey’ with Drax started 2½ years ago – and it’s been a rollercoaster of a ride since then!

Drax’s principal asset is its huge power station at Selby in East Yorkshire. It used to be  Europe’s largest coal-fired plant. Over the course of seven years, it converted four out of Selby’s six boilers to burn biomass rather than coal. Most of that biomass comes from pellet mills in the SE USA, some from British Columbia, and a much smaller amount from European countries.

When the initial decision was taken, NGOs were broadly (if somewhat cautiously) supportive. But as the implications of processing and shipping millions of tonnes of wood pellets became clearer, criticism from both NGOs and academics started ramping up. And the decision taken by Drax in 2018 to install CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) units at Selby seemed to make things worse – perhaps because CCS is itself such a controversial technology.

At which point (at the end of 2021), Drax asked Forum for the Future to set up a process to investigate under what sort of conditions it would be possible for Drax (and other companies in the sector) to ensure that BECCS plants could be built and operated as sustainably and responsibly as possible. We convened a High-Level Panel, took evidence from 12 Expert Witnesses, and reviewed a huge amount of background research.

We published our Report “BECCS Done Well” in November 2022, with 30 different Conditions/Recommendations. Drax’s CEO, Will Gardiner, committed to respond to our Report in detail, with a preliminary response emerging in July 2023. Unfortunately (and very frustratingly back then!) it proved impossible to secure company-wide agreement at that time on at least 10 of the most demanding Conditions.

To be fair, there was a lot going on inside Drax. Big decisions had to be taken about the future of BECCS in the USA, about future-proofing its entire supply chain in North America, about improving the operation of all its pellet plants, and so on. A big ‘exposé’ by the BBC’s Panorama programme (regarding Drax’s apparent impact on primary forests in British Columbia), caused significant reputational damage. NGO criticism was – and still is – unrelenting.

Nearly 18 months on, Drax’s Final Response to our Report has just been published. Each of the 30 Conditions has been responded to in detail; areas of divergence (of which there are still a few) have been properly acknowledged. Actions have been agreed – mostly with firm timelines.

So: do I think this Response from Drax demonstrates that BECCS can indeed be ‘done well’?

I do.

And I’m relieved on that score – simply because, if it can’t, our room for manoeuvre in a world where we will need to draw billions of tonnes of CO2 back out of the atmosphere (as I explain later) will be even more constrained than it already is.

Apart from the whole thing taking far too long, I really can’t fault the process. A huge amount of Executive Committee time was devoted to getting to grips with all the knotty issues underlying the 30 Conditions. Over the last couple of years, Drax has invested very significantly in its in-house sustainability expertise, across-the-board, and has transformed its internal governance and decision-making structure to put itself in a much stronger position.

Will Drax be cut any slack by its most outspoken critics in the NGO and academic communities as a consequence of all this? Sadly, I’d be surprised if that happens.

Indeed, I remain completely baffled as to the refusal of most NGOs (back in 2022) to engage with this whole BECCS Done Well process – or even to engage with Drax directly. It’s all very complicated, and I have to agree that Drax has not worked hard enough to rebuild the trust it lost within the NGO community many years ago. But the fact that most NGOs still find it very difficult to agree on what they themselves think about BECCS (present and future) has certainly not helped.

So, full marks to WWF and the RSPB for trying to break the log jam in its new report – “Beyond BECCS: the Case for a Reduced Reliance on BECCS in Meeting Net Zero“. It’s a good piece of work, and though I’m absolutely not surprised that our BECCS Done Well report warranted no specific references, I’m delighted that so many of our 30 Conditions are so constructively incorporated into this report.

The Key Messages from the report are:

“The UK can meet Net Zero with far lower levels of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage than currently planned by the UK government or the Climate Change Committee”.

“This will help to reduce energy bills, increase Britain’s energy security, and protect forests and nature”.

It then itemises 6 “challenges” with BECCS, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t. But they’re all well-argued. And from there it moves to a complex scenario-based forecasting process to substantiate its Key Messages.

However, what it doesn’t do is to entirely rule out BECCS as part of the UK’s strategy for Carbon Dioxide Removals (CDRs) – which I return to in Section 3.

So, my question to them is this: if, as you say, BECCS still has some (even if significantly reduced) role in helping the UK get to Net Zero by 2050, why not be forensically focussed on ensuring that this reduced BECCS contribution is done just as well as it possibly can be?

So why will neither of WWF’s or RSPB’s CEOs pick up the phone and ask for a meeting with Will Gardiner?

And this really matters. Our Report was about BECCS Done Well. You can rest assured there’s going to be a lot of BECCS Done Badly coming our way, and no doubt some BECCS Done Very Badly. All the signs of this are already there.

For instance, like many others, I have grave reservations about the amount of land that will be available to grow the biomass needed for new BECCS plants.  There are all sorts of idiotically inflated projections of suitable land just sitting there with no better potential use than plantation forests for BECCS. The likelihood of significant damage being done to the environment and biodiversity is very high ineed. All the more reason for the NGOs to focus on getting this right!

2. Controversies

I know a lot of this must sound arcane, (in a ‘so-what?’ sort of way), so it might be helpful to provide a bit of an explainer for some of those knotty issues – hopefully providing a step-by-step logic narrative that will shed light on the overall ‘Done Well’ conundrum.

2.1 Bioenergy
The international context here is important. Going back a long way, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has supported the use of biomass as a valuable renewable electricity option, and the GHG Protocol (established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) allows bioenergy to be counted as ‘carbon neutral’ – on the expectation that all the CO2 released by burning biomass will be re-absorbed by new forestry.

Two big problems now surround this official consensus. First, bioenergy is both inefficient (you need a lot of it to produce the same amount of electricity as a gas-fired plant) and expensive – which means ongoing and significant public subsidy, including tens of millions of pounds every year for Drax’s huge plant at Selby. Other renewables (particularly wind and solar) now look like a much better bet for using public money.

Second, the whole question of bioenergy being “carbon neutral” has been called into question. It may well be the case that the emissions from burning biomass and the re-sequestered CO2 balance out over decades – but we simply don’t have decades to drive the kind of radical decarbonisation we now need! So, everything depends on the ‘forest cycle’ – from planting to clear-felling. The contrast here is telling: that cycle is 40 years in SE USA, in comparison to 80+ in British Columbia.

2.2. Feedstocks for Drax’s pellet plants.

If Drax was burning clear-felled mature forests to make its pellets, British Columbia’s forest cycle would therefore be a total deal-breaker. But it doesn’t! Even if the BBC would have you believe it does, in its latest critique of Drax’s operations in British Columbia.

This is now going to get geeky, not least because I will be sharing the kind of information you will NEVER see referred to either by the NGOs or by the BBC. It’s published in Drax’s Annual Report (which means it’s super-validated) and in an accompanying ESG supplement (just in case you’re geeky enough, here’s the link: ESG data supplement)

Drax supplies other bioenergy plants apart from Drax, but Selby is so big I’m going to stick to that. For reporting purposes, Drax itemises 4 categories of forest-based biomass for the Selby Plant:

1. Sawmill and other wood industry residues
2. Branches and Tops
3. Thinnings
4. Low-Grade Roundwood

1 and 2: all good! This is biomass which would otherwise have to be burned (releasing significant amounts of COinto the atmosphere) or disposed of in other ways. And some of the branches and tops are still left on the forest floor after logging for biodiversity benefits.

3 and 4: all good – really! Well-managed forests have to be “thinned” to ensure the final crop is as healthy and productive as possible. “Low-Grade Roundwood” is the misshapen, often diseased stuff that’s no use for the high-value end uses sawmills need – for furniture and so on.

But here’s the rub: both thinnings and low-grade roundwood include “whole trees”, and sometimes, on the back of a big logging truck, that looks like the “big old trees” that people (rightly in my view) want to see protected.

If you listen to the NGOs and the far-from-impartial BBC, I would bet big bucks that you think Drax’s Selby plant is sourcing at least 50% of its raw materials from those big old trees. You couldn’t be more wrong. Here are the real, audited percentages for Selby’s biomass sourced from the USA and Canada:

1. Sawmill and other wood industry residues 32.68%
2. Branches and Tops 6.95%
3. Thinnings 25.39%
4. Low-Grade Roundwood 32.68%

(The remaining 2.23% comes from agricultural waste materials).

And don’t forget that all this material is only a small percentage of the total harvest – used for sawn timber and other forest products.

So why is it so hard for critics of Drax to base their criticism on the real story, not on a confected, insinuated travesty of that reality?

2.3 Environmental Justice.

Campaigners continue to raise legitimate and pressing questions about Drax’s pellet plants in the USA – many of which are still not in full compliance with local environmental regulations. That is completely unacceptable – as has been powerfully argued by local NGOs such as the Dogwood Alliance, backed now by the hugely influential National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Drax has now committed in its Final Response to ensuring absolute compliance (as a minimum) with those regulations, and to going further when it can. But the truth of it is that they have been complacent about this in the past and are now in full-on catch-up mode to rebuild trust with local communities.

The irony is that that Drax has a very good case to make in terms of employment and local economic multipliers (including local taxes), and some of the very disadvantaged communities in which it operates would take a further massive hit if Drax pulled out.  As I saw for myself when I visited in 2023.

2.4. Biodiversity

There are no ‘old-growth’ forests left in SE USA (Drax’s principal sourcing area) apart from a few protected reserves. It’s different in British Columbia, where there is a vast amount – and a correspondingly lively debate about the balance between protecting its Old Growth and High Conservation Value forests (British Columbia doesn’t use the term ‘primary forest ‘) and maintaining a viable timber industry, providing valuable construction-grade lumber for use in Canada and the USA.

Drax itself doesn’t own any forests and doesn’t have any logging licences. It depends entirely on the lumber industry for all that waste and secondary material for its pellet plants. But it accepts that it still has a clear responsibility for helping to protect biodiversity (including critical issues around water and soil) in both SE USA and Canada – this is confirmed in its Final Response – and is working with forest owners to innovate practices that protect and improve biodiversity.

2.5. Decarbonisation

Making pellets (and shipping them over thousands of miles) is a carbon-intensive business. All those emissions reduce the net climate benefit of burning biomass relative to burning fossil fuels. This is therefore a very significant focus area for Drax, which is already engaged in a major decarbonization programme.

I know this won’t mean much for those of us not ludicrously caught up in the minutiae of decarbonization targets, but here, for what it’s worth, are Drax’s targets:

  • 75% reduction in Scope 1 and 2 emissions from electricity generation by 2030:
  • 43% reduction in non-generation Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030:
  • 42% reduction in Scope 3 emissions by 2030.

I have to spend a lot of time assessing the merit of similar “science-based” targets, and all I can say is that these are pretty good. Not outstanding, but ambitious enough to cause quite a lot of pain in the Drax system – and let’s not forget that’s often what is needed to get any real sense of urgency. The Drax Remuneration Committee has chosen to allocate a proportion of the 2023 Group Performance Scorecard to delivering on its decarbonization initiatives, and this will be repeated in 2024.

  1. From Bioenergy to BECCS

These controversies represent some of the most significant challenges that bioenergy (as a source of renewable electricity) faces all over the world. As I mentioned at the top of this blog, that’s why both public sentiment and evolving policy are moving against this particular option – as can be seen most clearly in the EU as it ratchets down subsidies for unabated bioenergy (i.e. in plants without any of those plant’s emissions being captured and sequestered).

And that’s where it gets absolutely critical for Drax and its future business model. I’m not sure they’ll thank me for saying this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Drax itself has accepted the inevitability of this shift (raising serious questions about revenues from simply burning biomass), and is now much more focussed on the advantages of driving future revenues from BECCS in both the UK (at Selby) and in the USA (where they’ve created a new company to drive forward a new-build BECCS business).

Most of the Conditions in the Panel’s “BECCS Done Well” Report relate to that BECCS business model. And that’s all about what are now called ‘Carbon Dioxide Removals’ – finding a buyer for each and every tonne of CO2 that it captures at its plants and permanently takes out of the short-term carbon cycle by sequestering that CO2  permanently in depleted  oil and gas reservoirs or saline aquifers.

In effect, what we’re looking at is creating high-value Carbon Dioxide Removal credits, with a sideline in low-carbon electricity.

I have to say I’m impressed at the way Drax is moving forward on that front, thinking both about sales of those CDRs to governments (here in the UK, for instance), and to the private sector. Which means they need squeaky clean CDR credits, untouched by controversies around all these knotty forestry and community issues. Which in turn explains why Drax has already committed to avoiding all feedstocks from primary forests for its new BECCS plants.

  1. The Bigger Picture

Finally, step back for a moment – away from these specific Drax dilemmas.

If politicians had done what scientists told them they would need to do, more than 30 years ago, we wouldn’t now be facing an out-and-out Climate Emergency. We wouldn’t be living in a world dominated by the inevitable ‘overshoot’ that awaits us (too much CO2 in the atmosphere for anything vaguely resembling a stable climate), by the need to create global markets for CDRs, by the complexity of geological sequestration, and so on.

But we are. And we still will be – however applied we become at urgently limiting emissions of greenhouse gases over the next decade. There is no safe and sustainable future for humankind without restoring some kind of carbon balance in the atmosphere, and that demands not just accelerated, massively scaled-up measures to decarbonise our current global economy, but massively scaled-up removals of CO2 already in the atmosphere.

BECCS has a part to play in that. As I said, it’s a contribution that is significantly constrained by the amount of land that is available to provide the biomass for any new BECCS plant – and we should all beware, in that context, of some of the more insane projections about the amount of land available for such CDR investments. These are mostly driven by big, self-serving consultancies that know little about true sustainability, but a lot about growth and greed.

Since I started working with Drax, 2½ years ago, literally every physical indicator of the state of our planet (greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, plastic waste, air pollution etc) has got a great deal worse. The latest climate data from 2023 and early 2024 are truly shocking.

This is our existential tragedy – for which more and more people feel burning anger at the politicians and fossil fuel companies that have inflicted this tragedy upon us, irreversibly changing all our lives in the process.

It may be a big company, but Drax is a bit-part player in responding to that global tragedy. Even so, when it comes to deciding on which side of the divide it stands (further trashing the planet alongside the fossil fuel companies) or committing to ways of healing some of the damage done, I’m clear in my own mind that it stands on the side of the angels – however tarnished its halo is perceived to be.

Which is why I’ve felt rewardingly challenged and morally comfortable about the last 2½ years working with Drax.