An environmental charity’s legal challenge to Drax’s plans to construct a 3.6GW gas-fired power station in North Yorkshire has failed in the court of appeal, clearing the way for construction of the heavily-polluting plant.
ClientEarth was challenging the government’s decision to authorise the construction of the plant despite objections from the planning authority, on the basis that it contravenes the country’s statutory climate target, and appealing a decision handed down in May 2020.
The plant, when operational, will be the largest gas power station in Europe and account for 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions, according to lawyers from ClientEarth. It will threaten the emissions reductions already made by the electricity grid, which saw its greenest year ever last year and is anticipated to run without natural gas for hours at a time by 2025.
The Planning Inspectorate in 2019 recommended that ministers reject Drax’s proposals for the plant, which it says “would undermine the government’s commitment, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut greenhouse emissions.”
But Andrea Leadsom, then secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, ignored the advice and gave Drax the green light. The proposed gas-generating units will be on the Selby, North Yorkshire site of Drax’s coal-fired plant, which is scheduled to stop generation by March.
The government’s authorisation of the scheme, along with its failure to stop the construction of a new coal mine in Cumbria and billion-pound support of fossil fuel projects overseas, has cast a shadow on its public environmental stances, including its high-profile hosting of the COP26 summit at the end of this year.
Doug Parr, director of policy at Greenpeace UK, said: “This is yet another failure of climate leadership from the UK government ahead of a crucial UN climate summit. Ministers are behaving like someone trying to galvanise a pacifist rally by waving a machine gun.
“The government must U-turn and halt climate-wrecking projects, while the onus is also on Drax to do the right thing and take this project off the table.”
ClientEarth lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said: “Decision-makers must now stop hiding behind planning policy to justify business-as-usual approvals of highly polluting projects.” Client Earth will not take the Drax decision to the supreme court.
Drax defended its role in the UK power system and its environmental credentials, including a heavily-publicised commitment to becoming carbon negative by 2030. A spokesperson for the FTSE 250-listed company said: “Drax power station plays a vital role in the UK’s energy system, generating reliable electricity for millions of homes and businesses.”
He said the company will achieve its negative-carbon target by burning biomass in other plants and capturing and burying emissions.
He also cast some doubt on the project, saying its future depends on Drax’s investment decisions and on securing a capacity market contract from the government.
A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy said: “We welcome the court of appeal’s ruling. As we transition to net zero emissions by 2050, our record levels of investment in renewables will meet a large part of the energy demand. However, natural gas will still provide a reliable source of energy while we develop and deploy low carbon alternatives.”
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