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ClientEarth Communications

25th February 2021

Climate accountability

Climate win as Drax scraps gas mega plant in UK

Drax Power has confirmed that it will scrap its plans to build what would have been Europe’s largest gas-fired plant in North Yorkshire, marking a massive win for the UK and its net zero goals.

ClientEarth has long argued that the 3.6GW gas mega plant would have undermined the government’s targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its efforts to show real leadership on climate change.

We first opposed the plant in 2018, persuading the Government’s planning authority that consent for the project should be refused due to its climate impacts – the first time the Planning Inspectorate had recommended refusal on that basis.

We then mounted a legal challenge of the Government’s approval of the plant, which concluded in a Court of Appeal ruling last month that clarified key aspects of planning policy but nonetheless upheld the government’s approval.

Now, in a much welcomed development, Drax has confirmed its decision to abandon the project – saving the UK from the huge carbon lock-in that the plant risked. However, Drax continues to double down on its existing biomass operations, where huge volumes of wood pellets are burned to produce electricity.

Although currently classified as ‘renewable’ in the UK and Europe, there are serious climate and biodiversity concerns around the burning of woody biomass and its impact on the planet’s vital forests and ecosystems.

Just as we’ve seen with coal, Drax’s statement today makes clear that time is up for building any new large scale gas power plants in the UK.

ClientEarth lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said: “Drax’s decision to scrap development of what would have been Europe’s largest gas plant is a massive win for the UK and the climate.

“In opposing this controversial project since its inception, we warned that it risked the UK’s net zero target and risked locking in huge long-term subsidies.

“However, we need to see Drax embrace truly low-carbon and sustainable energy, rather than continuing to bet big on biomass.

“Just as we’ve seen with coal, Drax’s statement today makes clear that time is up for building any new large scale gas power plants in the UK.”

UK Government action  

The Court of Appeal ruling last month confirmed that the Government can refuse major projects on climate change grounds, setting a significant precedent on future infrastructure projects.

According to our lawyers, if the Government is to succeed in its climate goals, it must consider the carbon lock-in risk of new projects and ensure that any plant proposals align with the UK’s legally binding emission reduction targets.

They emphasised that the upcoming review of the UK’s planning policy is the time for the Government to make clear that climate-wrecking projects will no longer be approved.

Hunter Jones said: “With the UK hosting this year’s COP climate talks, the Government needs to ensure each and every planning decision is in line with net zero, and close the yawning gap between its carbon promises and reality.”

Biomass climate concerns

A US facility owned by Drax in Mississippi was recently fined $2.5m for breaching air pollution rules. The local Department for Environmental Quality took action after the plant, which produces wood pellets to supply the Selby power station, was emitting illegal levels of volatile organic compounds – an extremely harmful gas.

The energy firm, which receives hundreds of millions of pounds a year in UK subsidies and tax breaks for its biomass, has also faced criticism over its purchase of a wood pellet plant in Canada that currently burns natural gas to dry wood fibres used in biomass production.

“The science is clear about the inconsistency of large scale wood burning for power with meeting our climate goals and protecting the planet’s essential forests,” Hunter Jones said. “Recent reports of Drax’s wood pellet production causing toxic pollution and burning gas to dry the pellets only adds to the absurdity.”