Drax faces environmental and human rights condemnation at AGM

May 3, 2023
Canada’s destructive forest policies spotlighted by Stand.earth and allies at Drax AGM in London, UK
Drax AGM badge and shirt that reads "cut carbon not forests"

Last week, Drax came under fire at its own Annual General Meeting for its scandalous sourcing practices. Community leaders, scientists, and forest experts attended the London, UK meeting from around the world to question Drax’s board of directors about issues ranging from the pollution and damaging health effects on impoverished Black communities in the US, to the destruction of old growth and primary forests in Canada – all caused by Drax’s need for wood to burn for electricity in its North Yorkshire power plant.

Drax has gained infamy in recent years as evidence of its community health and forest impacts have been publicized. Last year, two documentaries from the BBC and CBC exposed Drax’s logging of old growth and primary forests in British Columbia to manufacture wood pellets to burn as fuel in its own power station, and to market globally. Around the same time, an investigation by Greenpeace Unearthed exposed the environmental racism at work in Drax’s operations in Black communities in the US Southeast.

Campaigners holding banner outside Drax AGM
Stand.earth forest campaigner Richard Robertson, right, with allies outside the Drax AGM in London on April 26, 2023

Drax AGM: Behind the scenes

Stand.earth forest campaigner Richard Robertson traveled to London from B.C. to attend the AGM and question Drax directors. 

“Even now, there are piles of freshly cut logs outside your pellet plants in British Columbia waiting to be ground up,” Robertson told a full room at the Drax AGM. “People rely on these forests for their wellbeing, their culture, food, and medicines. The forests in British Columbia are also among the most carbon-rich on the planet, and the science is clear: keeping them standing is the best bet to prevent climate catastrophe.”

The success of Drax’s greenwashing has enabled it to collect billions in public subsidies intended to support the transition to renewable energy. Despite the green facade, the science is clear that burning wood pellets is dirtier than coal, emitting more C02 at the stack per unit of energy generated – before even counting the loss of carbon caused by the destruction and degradation of forests. Now, Drax is under more scrutiny, as the UK’s energy regulator begins an audit of the coal-turned-wood-burner’s sustainability claims.

In the face of the grim reality of the forest biomass sector’s impact on the climate and land, Drax directors continued to tout the high regulation of the B.C. government as an excuse for their sourcing policies.

“Despite what our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says about Canada’s supposed sustainable forest management practices, the reality is that British Columbia is a leader in extinction, with more species at risk than any other province in Canada – and it still hands out logging permits in endangered species’ habitats,” Robertson told the assembled directors. “And now Drax is adding fuel to the fire by taking logging permits from B.C. and buying trees – whole trees – from Canadian logging companies responsible for this crisis. So my question is, how are you amending your sourcing policies to ensure no forests are destroyed or degraded into the future?”

Drax’s response leaned heavily on the “strict” regulations of the B.C. government, despite the clear evidence of environmental degradation – including the province’s own acknowledgement that forest management policies are in need of a “paradigm-shift” due to years of over-exploitation, the subsequent scarcity of productive old growth forests and the current extinction crisis facing species in B.C. Drax now owns a majority share in most B.C. pellet plants, which are largely exporting pellets to Japan and the UK.

After acknowledging inclusion of trees from primary and old growth forests in their pellet production, a Drax director attempted to hold up tree planting as another justification for their activities, prompting incredulity from the audience and an attendee to exclaim, “How can you think that works? It just shows how little you understand.”

“These forests will never grow back the same as they are now,” finished Roberston, expressing again the importance of keeping primary and old growth forests standing.

Pinnacle (now Drax) cutblock near Mackenzie, B.C.
Pinnacle (now Drax) cutblock near Mackenzie, B.C. Photo taken June, 2022. (Desiree Wallace, Stand.earth)
Logs piled outside of Drax pellet plant near Burns Lake, B.C.
Logs piled outside of Drax pellet plant near Burns Lake, B.C. Photo taken May, 2022. (Stand.earth)

“We have become a sacrifice zone.”

While Canada is the second largest exporter of wood pellets globally, the United States still leads the world in this export sector. The majority of the wood burning in Drax’s North Yorkshire power plant comes from forests in the US Southeast. Drax directors and other AGM attendees heard powerful testimony from Katherine Egland, a community leader and director of the NAACP from Mississippi and Dr. Krystal Martin, a community leader from Gloster in the US Southeast, where Drax operations have had devastating impacts.

“The population of Gloster is approximately 800 people. 80 percent of the people look like me. 80 percent of the people are Black. 55 percent of the population lives below the poverty line,” Dr. Martin told the AGM. “The Amite Drax facility in Gloster has major air pollution that has caused increased health issues of asthma, breathing issues, upper respiratory issues, lung cancer, among the local residents, especially the young children and the elderly population, which includes my mother. My mother is suffering from respiratory and breathing issues. She’s lived her entire life in that community, and right now she’s suffering from breathing issues.” 

Dr. Martin pointed to the fine that Mississippi leveled against Drax to the tune of $2.5 million, after years of producing air pollution 30 times the allowable limit. After being exposed for its pollution of Black communities, the UK came under scrutiny for using its public dollars to subsidize environmental racism.

“We have become a sacrifice zone. And we feel like you don’t care about us as people,” continued Dr. Martin. “You are willing to pollute our community and extract our natural resource, the forest, for your own economic gain. So I came all the way from Gloster, Mississippi to ask you: what role are you prepared to play in addressing the health issues and air pollution that you continue to inflict in our community?” 

Group of demonstrators from XR the UK energy department in London
XR action outside the UK treasury, London. 21st April 2023 (Richard Robertson, Stand.earth)

AGM attendees heard unsatisfactory, and at times misleading, responses from Drax directors on the questions of air pollution and health impacts, forest destruction and sourcing, and environmental issues. While the company’s policies were at the forefront during its AGM, it clearly demonstrated its reliance on regulation frameworks in British Columbia and other jurisdictions to support its sourcing.

Stand.earth is inviting its members to call on both Canada and the United States to improve legislation that will protect communities and forests from the growing forest biomass sector.

Katherine Egland, Richard Robertson, and Dr. Krystal Martin en route to the Drax AGM in London
Katherine Egland, Richard Robertson, and Dr. Krystal Martin en route to the Drax AGM in London

We need to stop burning forests for electricity

Will you join us in calling on Canada and the US to follow Australia’s lead and declare that logging and burning primary forests for electricity has no place in a renewable energy future?

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