Drax power station, where it plans to convert coal to gas | Credit: Drax Group
ClientEarth and Planning Inspectorate had both argued the power station could undermine the UK’s climate change targets
Plans for Europe’s biggest gas-fired power station have cleared a major hurdle after the UK’s High Court today rejected claims the government acted unlawfully in giving the North Yorkshire project the go-ahead, despite concerns it could undermine the UK’s net zero emissions goal.
Energy firm Drax was given the green light to build a new 3.6MW gas power plant on the site of an old coal power station in October last year by the then-Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom, who overruled contrary advice from the UK’s own planning authority.
The Planning Inspectorate had opposed the project, warning it could lock-in high carbon infrastructure at the expense of the UK’s climate goals, marking the first time it had opposed a major project on such grounds. It also argued wind and solar power would be more cost-effective for bill payers compared to new gas power capacity.
Leadsom, however, argued the country would still need fossil fuel power in the future, and that it was not the job of the planning system to block individual projects on climate grounds.
In January, environmental law group ClientEarth then launched a legal challenge against Leadsom’s decision, which it claimed was at odds with the government’s own climate change plans and the UK’s statutory target to decarbonise its economy to net zero by 2050.
It argued that once fully operational, the Drax project could account for up to 75 per cent of emissions from the UK’s electricity sector, and that as co-hosts of the critical COP26 climate change summit the UK should demonstrate global leadership in phasing-out fossil fuels.
Today, however, the High Court rejected ClientEarth’s claims, ruling that the government’s decision to approve the gas power project was legal, and paving the way for Drax to press ahead with financing and constructing the North Yorkshire facility.
The government welcomed today’s ruling, arguing that generating electricity from burning fossil fuel gas could support the UK’s net zero transition. “As we transition to net zero emissions in 2050, natural gas can provide a reliable source of energy while our world class renewables sector continues to grow, supported by record levels of investment,” said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Drax also argued the project would play a vital role in the UK’s energy system and support climate change targets. “The development of new high efficiency gas power at Drax would support the UK’s decarbonising energy system, subject to the project securing a Capacity Market agreement to underpin the investment needed,” it said in a statement today.
The energy firm wants to build four combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) at its plant in Selby, North Yorkshire to replace its existing two coal-fired units, ahead of the government’s proposed coal phase-out in 2024. If the company installs the 3.6GW it has secured planning permission for, Drax’s conversion would create Europe’s largest gas power plant.
Drax insists the project will still allow the company to meet its target to become a carbon negative company by 2030, as it plans to use bioenergy with carbon capture alongside the new gas capacity, in effect offsetting its fossil fuel emissions, it claims.
The firm said using “ground-breaking bioenergy with carbon capture and storage technology means we could remove up to 16 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, making a significant contribution to achieving the UK’s climate targets”.
However, the decision raises fresh questions about the UK’s global climate leadership ahead of COP26, with an announcement expected next week on when the crucial summit is to be held next year following its postponement in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And, with solar, wind power, battery storage and other clean technology prices continuing to plummet, opponents of the Drax gas power project argue it makes little sense on economic grounds and risks rendering the firm with a major stranded asset as the net zero shift accelerates.
As some commentators have pointed out, therefore, Drax may still face several financial hurdles to clear before it is able to go ahead with the project.
Now the REALLY big question…
Will this mega new gas plant actually get built? Do the numbers stack up on the investment?
IMO a far bigger hurdle than the planning process ever was, for this and other new gas power plans in the UK https://t.co/ZlyHq1SWLB
— Simon Evans (@DrSimEvans) May 22, 2020
Meanwhile, ClientEarth said it would consider lodging an appeal against today’s High Court judgment.
“We’re very dissatisfied by today’s judgment, rejecting our arguments against the lawfulness of the government’s decision and of its approach to assessing the project’s carbon lock in risk,” said ClientEarth in-house lawyer Sam Hunter Jones. “We will consider an appeal.”