Press release: 30 January 2020

Lawyers challenge UK Government approval of Europe’s largest gas plant

ClientEarth has launched a High Court challenge against a UK decision to greenlight what would be Europe’s largest new gas power plant.

The environmental law charity is challenging the Secretary of State’s decision to approve a controversial large-scale gas plant, which the government’s own planning authority said should be blocked on climate change grounds.

ClientEarth’s legal challenge seeks to overturn the approval given to Drax Power to install four new gas turbines at its plant in Selby, North Yorkshire.

If built, the plant would be responsible for as much as 75% of the entire UK power sector’s emissions, once fully operational.

Sam Hunter Jones, in-house lawyer for ClientEarth, said:

“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 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.”

In planning hearings last year, ClientEarth outlined its objections to the plant, and the Planning Inspectorate responded by recommending Drax’s plans be blocked because of its carbon emissions and significant risk of locking in those emissions for many years. This was the first time that the authority has recommended a major project be refused permission for its future climate impact.

ClientEarth was invited to submit an assessment of the plant’s climate impact, which was supported by climate think-tank Sandbag. This assessment showed that over its lifetime the project could create 400% more greenhouse gas emissions than in the scenario where the plant is not built.*

The Government’s latest forecasts estimate that the UK will need 6GW of new gas generation through to 2035. However, the UK has already greenlit more than 15GW worth of large-scale gas plants. Approving Drax’s project would take this to 18GW – three times the Government’s estimates.

The Government’s 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 (CCS).

In its planning application, Drax claimed its proposal for four combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) was warranted to replace its existing two coal-fired units ahead of the government’s proposed coal phase-out in 2025. However, ClientEarth warned that the combination of the project’s scale, emissions intensity and operating life made it a significant threat to the UK’s carbon targets.

Hunter Jones added: “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.

“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.

“Drax’s own figures show that installing gas capacity will not deliver more long-term jobs at Selby, in fact the company expects operational employment to decrease, after the construction phase. And in the longer term a stranded asset of this size would be a significant drain on the local and national economies.

“Globally, scientists have detailed the drastic carbon emission reductions needed to ensure the planet keeps global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The recent devastation and loss of life in Australia are a stark warning of the price of inaction.”


Notes to editors:
  • Drax’s gas conversion would be Europe’s largest gas power plant, if the company installs the 3.6GW capacity that the Government has given planning permission for. The current largest gas plant in Europe is the 3.4GW plant in Montalto, Italy. The current largest gas plant in the UK is the 2.2GW Pembroke plant in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
  • Using the allocation to the power sector envisaged in the government’s Clean Growth Strategy – of 16 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide per year in 2028 – the proposed development’s emissions of up to 12 Mt of CO2 per year would represent approximately three-quarters of the emissions for the entire UK power sector, when the project becomes fully operational.
  • Over its lifetime, the project would produce additional greenhouse gas emissions up to 400% greater than ClientEarth’s baseline scenario, which tracks BEIS’s forecasts of overall grid emissions intensity out to 2050. This comparison against the baseline scenario underscores the project’s inconsistency with the increasingly residual role of unabated fossil fuel generation on the UK grid.
  • In its recommendation to the Secretary of State, the Planning Inspectorate found that: “In any event, little evidence was advanced … to demonstrate that the Proposed Development, having regard to its improved efficiency, would deliver more affordable energy for consumers than any new Energy NSIP ordinarily would. Indeed, both the Applicant and [National Grid] confirmed that it is the production of renewable plants that will deliver cheaper energy than fossil fuel plants for the reasons given above. … [T]he operating life of the Proposed Development presents a significant risk of high carbon lock-in after the planning horizon of 2025 identified in the NPS EN-1. In addition, the possibility and cost of early decommissioning has not been accounted for by the Applicant, in line with policy objectives of affordability and decarbonisation.”

*This scenario tracks the Government’s forecasts of overall grid emissions intensity to 2050 and therefore represents the mix of generation technologies that could provide generation in the absence of Drax’s plant.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.