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Drax Accused of ‘Desperate’ Campaign to Influence Selby By-Election Candidates

July 18, 2023

Drax, the company that runs Britain’s biggest power station, stands accused by residents of “brazen politicking” in a closely fought by-election contest in Selby and Ainsty, North Yorkshire.

DeSmog can reveal that Drax is co-hosting a hustings with five of the local candidates on Wednesday evening, and has encouraged its allies both to attend the event and offer statements in support of the firm.

Ahead of the by-election, set for 20 July, Drax has also been heavily sponsoring articles in local newspapers, where it repeatedly states that the company hopes to build a “constructive relationship” with the area’s next MP.

Pro-Drax coverage in the Selby Times over the past fortnight has included a four-page paid-for advertorial feature, an article on the company sponsoring York Pride, and a direct appeal by Drax for the support of prospective representatives.

The scale of pressure applied by Drax during the by-election contest to date “shows a level of desperation on Drax’s part not seen before,” Katy Brown, of campaign group Biofuelwatch, told DeSmog.

The latest polling for the vote gives Labour the lead in the former Tory safe seat, which was previously held by Nigel Adams, who was a vocal champion of Drax during his 13 years in office.

Drax, which says it supports over 6,000 jobs in the North of England, is the UK’s single largest emitter of carbon dioxide. The firm has actively lobbied politicians at a local and national level, applying intense pressure across government departments to influence energy policy in its favour. Last year it made a £12,000 donation to the Labour Party, and has sponsored major events at both Conservative and Labour party conferences.

The Selby and Ainsty by-election coincides with a deeply uncertain time for the future of Drax, which is looking to Westminster for continued financial and political backing.

Drax earned £617 million in direct government subsidies in 2022 to burn wood pellets at its former coal-fired power station, which generates around 12 percent of the UK’s renewable electricity. This comes in addition to £893 million in subsidies in 2021.

With its subsidies coming to an end in 2027, Drax is now waiting to hear whether the government will back the firm’s controversial plans to store its significant carbon emissions under the North Sea (a process known as BECCS). Energy think tank Ember has estimated the total cost of the plant at £31.7 billion.

The electricity Drax produces is classified as carbon neutral under the premise – disputed by many experts – that new-growth trees will reliably recapture and store the carbon emitted from burning wood pellets.

“Drax knows its greenwash and jobs claims are starting to wear thin, and clearly wants to use the Selby by-election as an opportunity to promote itself to all prospective candidates,” Brown said. “It wants another local champion who will talk up its inflated jobs claims at Westminster to try and influence central government decisions over Drax’s subsidies.”

Drax Hustings

Residents who spoke to DeSmog said the upcoming hustings has been poorly advertised to the 96,000 residents living in the constituency, with many unaware it is taking place.

Drax did however alert its supporters to the by-election and the upcoming hustings in multiple emails sent to its ‘Friends of Drax’ newsletter list.

The first, dated 28 June, noted “a few opportunities for you to make your voice heard during this critical time”, including by lobbying the candidates and attending local hustings.

“By engaging with the candidates and asking thought-provoking questions, you can help ensure that representatives from all political parties understand the significance of supporting thousands of green jobs, decarbonising the Humber region, and positioning Selby & Ainsty as a pioneering force in green technology,” it read.

In the newsletters, Drax says advocating for BECCS technology “should be a focus of our parliamentary representative”, highlighting its ambition to achieve ‘carbon negative’ energy by 2030.

Multiple academic studies, however, have found that the vast increase in bioenergy required to upscale BECCS in line with current international targets would put at risk future generations due to uncertainties over land and energy use, as well as the effectiveness of the technology to safely capture and store emissions.

Five candidates are due to meet at tomorrow’s debate, including the by-election front-runners, the Conservative Party’s Claire Holmes and Labour’s Keir Mather. Neither candidate, nor their party press offices, responded to DeSmog’s multiple requests to clarify either their position on BECCS, or whether Drax had communicated with them directly.

The Yorkshire Post, the primary regional newspaper, is chairing the two-hour event at the Drax Sports & Social Club, a community venue that lies opposite the power station. In an email between organisers, seen by DeSmog, a journalist from the newspaper said Drax would be “hosting”, but appeared to rule out any undue editorial influence.

“This will not be a hustings on Drax or energy, but Drax will be hosting the event,” they said, adding that Drax staff would attend along with members of the public and the media. Drax did not respond to DeSmog’s requests to clarify what “hosting” the event will entail.

In another email to its supporters, Drax describes the hustings as “a great opportunity to ensure the candidates understand the important role that Drax plays in the local area, as well as for national issues such as supporting energy security and net zero.

“With the power station serving as an ideal backdrop for the discussion, as someone who cares about the future of Drax we wanted to make you aware of the event.”

A third newsletter was dispatched on Tuesday, the day before the hustings. “We look forward to seeing you there,” Drax told supporters.

Cherry Waters, a Selby Green Party member from South Milford, described Drax’s role in hosting the event – and its pushing of a pro-BECCS message in the local press – as a clear “conflict of interest”.

“This has crossed a line – it’s never happened before” she said, referring to the location of the hustings and Drax’s status as a co-host. “The next MP should not be in the pocket of Drax.”

Winning local support is crucial to influencing policy on a national level, Waters added.

“If the local MP isn’t seen to be championing Drax, that’s going to make everyone else question it,” she said.

During his tenure as the Selby and Ainsty MP, from 2010 to 2023, Conservative Nigel Adams faced criticism for his extensive ties to the biomass industry. Until 2017, Adams chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group for biomass, an informal group of MPs and peers that has been funded by Drax. The company also spent at least £17,000 to fund Adams to make four trips to the US Industrial Pellet Association (USIPA) in Miami between 2015 and 2019.

Drax did not respond to DeSmog’s requests for comment.

‘Put Us On the Map’

In the run-up to the by-election, Drax has sought to influence the local community by promoting itself as a green champion through coverage in the local press.

In the 29 June weekly edition of the Selby Times, UK Drax plant director Bruce Heppenstall wrote that: “I’d like to thank Nigel [Adams] for all his positive engagement and support over the past 13 years.

“We look forward to building a constructive relationship with Nigel’s replacement and I hope that they will welcome the role Selby and Ainsty, and Drax, play in powering Britain and realising the country’s decarbonisation efforts.

“Whoever is elected, we hope they will do all they can to help us put the constituency on the map as the global hub for carbon removal technologies.”

The Selby Times has also been filled with articles and advertorials pitching Drax as a community champion. Accompanied by a picture of smiling volunteers cleaning up a river, a paid-for front page advertorial on 29 June reads: “Drax foundation gives £90k to good causes”.

The most recent 6 July edition of the Selby Times contained one article on a new carbon capture project based at the power station, which had no byline and included lengthy quotes from three Drax executives. A resident described this as a “quiet and somewhat unusual week” for the newspaper’s coverage of Drax. Selby Times did not respond to DeSmog’s request for comment.

There is no mention in any of the articles of any concerns raised around the sustainability or sourcing of the wood pellets used by Drax, nor any critique of its claims over how many jobs its BECCS plans will create. A BBC Panorama documentary last year found the company was cutting down primary growth trees in Canada – claims that Drax has denied.

“Community groups in Selby are used to Drax’s greenwashing and turn a blind eye to the money being handed out to sponsor community events and local parks,” Selby resident Tom Beharrell told DeSmog. “The narrative continues being fed via local schools, colleges and educational visits, hijacking genuine climate change concerns and the push to net zero.

“It is brazen politicking… when they donate money to the local MP and political parties, and ask their friends group to lobby parliamentary candidates and attend hustings hosted by themselves. The science can be complicated and inaccessible to the public, but scientists and environmentalists are seeking the truth and ringing the alarm bells.”

The Drax Community Fund donates tens of thousands every year to causes in the vicinity of the power station, including primary schools, sports teams, and community halls.

Katy Brown, of Biofuelwatch said that Drax’s public subsidies should be diverted “to wind, solar and home insulation – genuine climate solutions which would provide many more jobs than the monolithic, out of date, polluting Drax power station.”

 

Teaser photo credit: By Paul Glazzard, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7932928

Phoebe Cook

Phoebe is Senior Reporter at DeSmog. She previously trained as a news reporter across local titles in Essex and East London, with her work since appearing in the Independent, Evening Standard, The Sun Online, Deutsche Welle, and The Local and Prospect Magazine.

Tags: greenwashing, political lobbying, UK politics