UK facing legal climate challenge over new gas plant permit

Campaigners say decision is at odds with government’s own climate change plans

A view of the cooling towers of the Drax coal-fired power station near Selby, northern England on September 25, 2015. Energy company Drax has abandoned a 1 billion GBP installation of carbon capture technology to cut emissions, citing  the UK government's reduction of subsidies for renewable energy. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP)

Britain will have to justify in court why it approved new natural gas-fired power generation capacity at a Drax plant after a legal challenge from a group of environmental lawyers.

ClientEarth said the UK High Court approved a Judicial Review of the October planning decision that would allow Drax to convert two of its coal-fired units at its Yorkshire plant into four gas turbines with an output capacity of up to 3.6 gigawatts.

Gas has long been seen as a bridging fuel in the UK’s quest to cut pollution and use more renewable energy.

But with Britain adopting a net-zero emissions target into law, environmentalists are turning their focus to new fossil-fuel projects, whatever the source.

ClientEarth wants to overturn the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy decision to allow Drax to convert to gas, which the planning authority recommended be blocked on climate concerns.

Drax said in October that the project would produce more reliable and efficient energy, and create 800 new jobs.

“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,” said Sam Hunter Jones, a ClientEarth lawyer.

Drax’s plant in Yorkshire used to be the UK’s biggest coal station. Four of its six units have been converted to use biomass, and Drax aims to be carbon-negative by 2030 with the help of carbon capture technology.

Although permission was granted for Drax to add 3.6 gigawatts, the company is only looking at half that amount.

The conversion is also dependent on Drax securing a capacity-market agreement in the UK's programme to pay plants to stay open in times of high demand.

“Drax’s carbon-negative ambition could be achieved with new, high-efficiency gas power capacity as part of our portfolio of flexible generating assets,” a Drax spokesman said.

“It could support the continued decarbonisation of the energy system, helping the UK on its path to net-zero by 2050, in line with the government’s policies.”

ClientEarth has had success in challenging the government’s clean air policies, even convincing Supreme Court judges that legislators were failing to implement pollution targets.

This suit is the first time the group of environmental lawyers have targeted a specific planning decision in the UK.

Also in Europe, the charity won a challenge in Greece over the permit renewal for two coal-fired plants this month, and filed a suit against Poland’s biggest power plant to stop it burning lignite or force it to install carbon capture technology.

The British department did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.