We’ve launched a High Court challenge against the UK government for its decision to approve plans for Europe’s largest gas plant. The Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom, approved the controversial large-scale gas plant despite the government’s own planning authority recommending the plans be rejected on climate grounds.
Her decision undermines the UK’s path to reducing carbon emissions and building a more sustainable energy sector. So we’re taking action.
An unwarranted asset
Amid our global climate emergency, we can’t afford the UK to be locked into heavily polluting gas power for decades to come. The Government’s own climate body, the Committee on Climate Change, has warned there should be no more gas on the UK grid by the mid-2030s without carbon capture and storage.
Yet UK energy company Drax plans to install four new gas turbines at its plant in Selby, North Yorkshire.
In its planning application, it claimed its proposal was warranted to replace its existing two coal-fired units ahead of the government’s proposed coal phase-out in 2025. But the government’s latest forecasts estimate that the UK will need just 6GW of new gas generation to 2035 and they have already approved 15GW worth of large-scale gas plants. Approving Drax’s project would take total planned gas capacity to 18GW – three times the Government’s estimates.
In June 2019, the UK set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Another large-scale gas plant makes no sense if we’re to roll out this rapid decarbonisation, especially when so much gas power has already been approved.
Rejecting the climate authority
When Drax submitted its plans in 2018, we objected, arguing that if the project were to go ahead, it risked locking the UK into unnecessary fossil fuel power for decades to come.
Our assessment of the plant’s climate impact, supported by climate think-tank Sandbag, also found that the project could create 400% more greenhouse gas emissions than if it weren’t built.
ClientEarth’s climate lawyer Sam Hunter Jones explains: “In its planning application, Drax failed to explain how this emissions-intensive gas project squares with the UK’s carbon targets and its strategy for clean growth. And the Government’s own energy forecasts show that the UK does not need a major roll out of new large-scale gas generation capacity.”
The Planning Inspectorate agreed with us and recommended the project be blocked. They ruled that the project’s climate impacts outweighed any benefits. This was the first time that the authority has recommended a major project be refused permission for its future climate impact.
However, Andrea Leadsom, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy rejected the planning authority’s recommendation and approved the project to go ahead.
Our legal challenge against the UK government
Our lawyers are looking to overturn the approval given to Drax. The combination of the project’s scale, emissions intensity and operating life make it a significant threat to the UK’s carbon targets.
Sam explains: “The Secretary of State has ignored the recommendations of her own planning authority, and her decision is at odds with the government’s own climate change plans to decarbonise in a cost-effective manner.”
“Only this month David Attenborough warned governments to take more action to tackle global heating, pointing to the Australian bushfires as proof humanity’s moment of crisis has come.
“With scientists also ringing the alarm bells for decades, we shouldn’t need to take the government to court over its decision to allow what would be Europe’s biggest gas plant.”
The UK government is being sued for approving a large new gas-fired power plant, overruling the climate change objections of its own planning authority.
The plant, being developed by Drax in north Yorkshire, would become the biggest gas power station in Europe and could produce 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions when fully operational, according to the environmental lawyers ClientEarth, who have brought the judicial review.
The planning inspectorate recommended to ministers that the 3.6GW gas plant was to be refused permission because it “would undermine the government’s commitment, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut greenhouse emissions” by having “significant adverse effects”. It was the first big project rejected because of the climate crisis.
However, Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, rejected the advice and gave the go-ahead in October. Now ClientEarth has been given permission by the high court to sue ministers, with the case expected to be heard in about two months. The environmental lawyers have previously inflicted three defeats on ministers over their failure to tackle air pollution.
“With scientists ringing the alarm bells for decades, we shouldn’t need to take the government to court over its decision,” said Sam Hunter Jones, a lawyer at ClientEarth. “[Leadsom’s] decision is at odds with the government’s own climate change plans. As the planning inspectorate found, if this plant goes ahead the public risks a carbon budget blowout, or a huge stranded asset that would require propping up by the taxpayer, or a combination of the two.”
A Drax spokeswoman said the company’s ambition was to be removing, not adding carbon to the atmosphere, by 2030. It would do this by burning wood or plants and then capturing and storing the emissions. [That is nonsense, and nobody should be conned by the greenwash. AW comment]
She said Drax’s carbon negative ambition could be achieved alongside “new, high efficiency gas power capacity as part of our portfolio” and provide electricity when the wind was not blowing or the sun shining.
The government is to bring its environment bill before parliament on Thursday, which it said underlined its commitment to tackling the climate crisis. The Guardian revealed last week that more than 90% of the £2bn in energy deals struck at a UK-Africa investment summit were for fossil fuels.
In its planning application, Drax said its proposal for four new gas turbines was warranted to replace its existing two coal-fired units ahead of the government’s proposed phase-out of coal in 2025. It said the new gas plant would be “capable” of having carbon capture technology fitted in the future.
In overruling the planning inspectorate, Leadsom argued that the plant’s high carbon emissions were not a reason to block approval under the existing rules. “While the significant adverse impact of the proposed development on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to atmosphere is acknowledged, the policy set out in the relevant National Policy Statements makes clear that this is not a matter that should displace the presumption in favour of granting consent.”
ClientEarth says the government’s latest forecasts estimate the UK will need 6GW of new gas generation up to 2035. The UK has already approved more than 15GW of large-scale gas plants, it said, so approving Drax’s project would take this to three times the government’s estimates.
The environmental lawyers argued the combination of the project’s large scale, level of carbon emissions and long operating life made it a significant threat to the UK’s carbon targets.
The planning inspectorate also concluded that wind and solar power would cut payers’ bills, while the proposed gas plant would not. “Both [Drax] and [National Grid] confirmed that it is the production of renewable plants that will deliver cheaper energy.”