Forget Mad Max – What About Mad Drax?

Dr. John Happs

The 1979 Australian action movie Mad Max was set in asociety teetering on the brink of collapse. The screenwriter James McCausland, reflecting on the 1973 oil crisis, speculated about the prospect of Peak Oil and the violence that might accompany the end of oil:

The ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol-and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence. … George and I wrote the [Mad Max] script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving …”

The notion of Peak Oil has been vigorously promoted by green groups and those vested interests wanting to promote biofuels and inefficient, unreliable wind and solar sources of energy. For instance, Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University of Technology and many others have frequently paraded the Peak Oil chimera.

Additionally, the Peak Oil bogeyman has been waved around by those who have bought into the “carbon dioxide drives global warming” nonsense despite there being no sign of Peak Oil even on the most distant horizon.

NASA’s orbiting gravimeter logs gravitationally differentiated gas, coal and oil deposits and has now provided data indicating we could have up to 500 years of economically recoverable hydrocarbon fuels available. Although still contentious, there is increasing evidence that such hydrocarbon resources could be abiotic and renewable to provide an infinite resource.

So-called Green policies and poor decision-making by politicians continue to drive up the cost of electricity around the world with the promotion of unreliable, inefficient wind and solar energy, biofuels and bioenergy being chiefly responsible for this cost burden.

Growing food crops and then turning them into biofuels is hard to justify when the energy conversion factors are considered. The fertilizer used in growing the crops is made from hydrocarbon fuels whilst the machines used to plant and harvest the crops are manufactured using hydrocarbon energy and are powered by hydrocarbon fuels.

The use of food crops for biofuels is bordering on the immoral and even Green NGO’s such as Greenpeace and the WWF have pointed to this as being a questionable practice when there are people in developing countries facing food shortages.

In 2000 more than 90% of the corn crops grown in the US was used to feed people and farm animals but, by 2013, 40% of those crops went into ethanol production with 36 million acres used and huge amounts of water consumed. The fuel used and pesticides needed to produce enough ethanol to replace a mere 10% of petrol achieved so little and the corn that was grown could have fed so many.

orphans of the corn cartoon

Millions of acres of canola cover Germany, Montana and Saskatchewan to produce biodiesel.


Brazil is the world’s largest sugarcane ethanol producer and, in 2015/16, Brazilian ethanol production was around 30 billion litres, most of this being used by the domestic market in the form of pure ethanol fuel or ethanol blended with petrol.

Wikipedia Commons

A number of problems associated with ethanol fuel have been identified:

Tragically, large areas of rainforests are being destroyed to make way for biofuel production and the impact of the resulting monoculture plantations on ecosystems world-wide is not insignificant.

The biofuel folly is surpassed only by the quest for biomass-energy. Perhaps the most head-shaking example of biomass-energy madness can be found in the Drax Group’s power station that supplies around 10% of the UK’s electricity.

Located near Selby in North Yorkshire, Drax was the last coal-fired power station to be built in the UK. It once consumed low-sulphur coal transported at relatively little expense from a nearby coalfield in Selby to power 6 generators. At 6GW, Drax is currently the UK’s largest power plant.

In 1988 Drax was declared the cleanest power plant in the UK when flue-gas desulphurisation technology was introduced to remove 90% of sulphur dioxide emissions and later equipment was installed to remove all oxides of nitrogen. Incredibly, this clean, efficient power station was then converted to be fuelled by biomass in 2014.

drax power station
Drax power station: Wikipedia Commons

The switch to biomass energy was no doubt encouraged by extremely generous funding with the UK government giving the company around $720 million in subsidies to switch from burning coal to wood in a futile attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in compliance with the pointless Paris Climate Agreement.

So Drax started to burn wood pellets in preference to coal and, like so many alternative energy schemes, the whole operation has now conjured up far larger and unanticipated problems.

wood pellets
Wikipedia Commons

Justification for the Drax conversion was that trees are renewable and the conversion would go some way for the UK to meet its Paris renewable energy/carbon dioxide reduction obligations. This decision completely overlooked the fact that the trees-wood-pellets-power cycle would emit far more carbon dioxide and particulate air pollution than would the original coal-fired operation.

It is simply a myth that burning biomass will reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The UK Government appears oblivious to the research findings from the University of Nottingham showing that the Drax power station now produces millions of tonnes per annum more carbon dioxide by burning low energy-density wood pellets, rather than coal, to produce an equivalent amount of electricity.

In 2014 a group of 60 US scientists agreed with the Nottingham study and sent a letter to the UK Government critical of subsidies being provided for biomass power plants that actually increase carbon dioxide emissions, in addition to the environmental damage caused by pellet production.

Additionally, 200 scientists sent a letter to the European Union in 2017 also pointing out that bioenergy is not carbon-neutral and they called for tighter legislation to protect forests and their stored carbon.

It is clear that burning wood biomass also produces more particulate matter than would burning an equivalent mass of coal. Independent research by Dr. Mike Holland and commissioned by Fern, an organisation based in Europe and dedicated to protecting forests concluded that:

Reliance on solid biomass to meet the EU’s energy needs makes little sense on environmental grounds (for example, it leads to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and has damaging impacts on forests). In Fern’s view, the case collapses completely once the negative consequences for European health are factored in, an issue that until now has received almost no attention in the debate on bioenergy.”

The health problems of biomass burning were underscored:

Increased biomass use in the electricity sector could lead to up to 1,100 additional deaths per year, along with large numbers of cases of bronchitis and hospital admissions.”


It is estimated that exposure to smoke from domestic biomass use is linked to 40,000 deaths across the EU each year.”

Dr. Mark Jacobson reflected on global mortalities:

We calculate that 5 to 10 percent of worldwide air pollution mortalities are due to biomass burning and that means that it causes the premature deaths of about 250,000 people each year.”

Wood pellets are currently the main solid biomass energy material on world markets with increasing demands coming from those countries ready to convert their power stations to comply with the Paris agreement on emissions reduction. Demand for pellets is increasing in a number of countries seeking to meet their renewable energy targets.

The assumption by those countries using this kind of biofuel is that low-grade timber along with mill and forest organic waste should make up the main feedstock for pellets.

We all know that will not happen!

Naturally, suppliers tend to make the same claim and even if they wanted to use forest organic waste, they are of little value due to their high ash content and the inevitable detritus coming from the forest floor.

Drax has always maintained that its pellets are sourced from “low-grade wood such as forest thinnings, tree tops and branches.”

So what did reporter Fred Pearce find when he looked around the US supplier’s mills? He saw mostly tree trunks, several metres in length, piled in yards ready to be converted into pellets.

A 2015 study by the American Forest and Paper Association confirmed that most wood pellets produced in the US for export to the UK came from whole trees and not forest thinnings.

In addition to the carbon dioxide produced by burning wood pellets, the harvesting of whole trees for biofuel energy will further increase carbon dioxide emissions since there will be a loss of carbon sequestration from those trees that have been removed. Even if the forest is replanted, soil carbon losses during harvesting can be significant and this is likely to delay a forest’s return to its original form as a carbon sink for at least 20 years.

Ecologists are concerned that arguments about carbon neutrality, accepted by the European Union and the UK government, do not stand up to scrutiny. Additionally, they point out that old-growth forests in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi, as well as those in Europe, are gradually being destroyed simply to address a European fantasy about the use of renewable energy to control climate change.

Austrian scientist Dr. Helmut Haberl points out that cutting down a tree to burn its wood will oxidize the tree’s carbon atoms decades before they would be released by decay. He argues that It could take 200 years to break even in carbon terms by planting new trees.

Ecologists also stress that forests are not only carbon stores, they are also important ecosystems for native flora and fauna that could be destroyed by logging merely to supply wood pellets for power stations. Scientists have written to the UK Energy Secretary pointing out that biomass policies in the UK are harming wildlife in those countries that supply wood pellets.

It is not widely known that the use of hydrocarbon fuels in England during the Middle Ages reversed the deforestation that swept the country in those times. Britain now has three times as much forest as it had in the 18th and 19th centuries because of the use of hydrocarbon fuels to replace forest timber.

Wikipedia Commons

Scientists are concerned that policies promoting the production of wood pellets for fuel could lead to an accelerating global logging boom that will further destroy forest biodiversity. Dr. Tim Searchinger from the World Resources Institute says:

“It basically tells the Congo and Indonesia and every other forested country in the world that if you cut down your forests and use them for energy, not only is that not bad, it’s good.”

Dr. Duncan Brack (2017) argues that:

In practice, this means that support should be restricted to sawmill residues, together with post-consumer waste. Burning slower-decaying forest residues or whole trees means that carbon emissions stay higher for decades than if fossil fuels had been used.”

An additional problem is that so-called carbon offsets are neither verifiable nor enforceable and a report from the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) agrees that much bigger carbon savings would be achieved by leaving the wood in the forests.

There are additional problems associated with the constant removal and re-planting of trees. Not only is there a loss of soil carbon, but there is soil structure deterioration due to compaction from heavy machinery use. This leads to decreased infiltration, increased runoff and erosion.


Now we arrive at perhaps the most head-scratching part of the trees – pellets – Drax operation whereby Drax boilers are heated by over 6 million tons of wood pellets shipped across the Atlantic each year.

Research conducted by DECC showed that no carbon dioxide emissions are saved at all, especially when transportation emissions are calculated.

Consider the following cycle:

1. Companies in Canada and the US are felling millions of acres of forest to convert trees into wood pellets.

2. The wood pellets are then trucked to coastal ports and loaded on to ships.

3. These ships transport the pellets across the Atlantic to ports in the UK.

4. The wood pellets are then loaded from the ships on to trucks at the UK port.

5. The wood pellets are then trucked to the Drax power station and burned to produce electricity that could be generated more efficiently and at less expense if local coal were used.

It has been estimated that half of the timber currently cut across Europe is now used for heating and power generation with increasing evidence that legal and illegal logging are now causing extensive damage in mature forests such as the Carpathian Mountain region between Austria and Romania. These are some of the largest surviving old-growth forests and are home to many wolves, brown bears and lynx.

Susanne Breitkopf from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said:

There is a clear link between illegal logging in Romania and the EU wood pellet market.”

North America is supplying large quantities of wood pellets to the Drax power station that is now emitting more carbon dioxide than when it was coal-fired. In contrast, the US has seen large cuts in its carbon dioxide emissions due to its increasing use of gas from fracking, a process still resisted by many Green groups wanting lower emissions.

In summary, the energy produced by these feel-good green schemes is limited and costly compared to energy from hydrocarbon fuels and it is those who can least afford the inevitable increasing power bills who are hit the hardest by such folly. Additionally, the rising costs of unreliable, inefficient energy sources impacts industry, schools, hospitals and every kind of business so that everyone suffers.

When science is driven by ideology, bad decisions are the result. All this nonsense is based on the incredible belief that the miniscule amount of carbon dioxide produced by human activity can actually control the climate of a planet. A foolish belief for which there is no empirical evidence.

The “Mad Drax” syndrome is based on climate change pseudoscience resulting in ludicrous and expensive energy policies.

Future generations will look back and think we really had gone mad.

Dr. John Happs M.Sc.1st Class; D.Phil.

John has an academic background in the geosciences with special interests in climate, and paleoclimate. He has been a science educator at several universities in Australia and overseas and was President of the Western Australian Skeptics for 25 years.

Now retired from academia and consulting work, Dr. Happs frequently writes to scientists, journalists and politicians, providing evidence-based information about climate change whilst exposing the ways in which the issue has become captured by politics and ideology. He has had one of his letters, detailing IPCC malfeasance, tabled in the Canadian Parliament. He gives regular talks on climate change to community groups such as Probus, U3A and Rotary since he believes that the public has essentially obtained its information about climate change through the media and political commentary.

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