UK sued for approving Europe’s biggest gas power station

Andrea Leadsom overruled climate aims of government’s own planning authority

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. 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 UK government’s actions to tackle the climate emergency are under particular scrutiny this year as it will host a vital UN summit in Glasgow in November. The world’s nations must dramatically increase their pledges to cut carbon emissions at the summit to avoid a disastrous 3-4C rise in global temperatures.

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.”

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