In approving the plant in 2019, the UK government overruled its own planning authority’s recommendation to reject the project on climate grounds.

The proposed plant, based next to an existing facility in Selby, North Yorkshire, was given the go-ahead in October 2019 (Credit: Drax

The UK Court of Appeals has rejected a bid from environmental campaigners to prevent Drax from building the biggest gas-fired power plant in Europe.

The proposed plant, based next to an existing facility in Selby, North Yorkshire, was given the go-ahead in October 2019.

It was a controversial decision as the UK government, in approving the project, overruled its own planning authority’s recommendation to reject it on climate grounds.

Environmental law charity ClientEarth issued a High Court challenge in January 2020 on the decision to grant the 3.6-gigawatt (GW) plant – which it claims will produce up to 75% of Britain’s power sector’s emissions.

But, following a judicial review, the government’s approval was ruled legal by the High Court in May 2020, and the Court of Appeals has today (21 January) decided to reject the group’s latest legal challenge.

ClientEarth’s lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said: “The UK government must stop hiding behind planning policy to justify business-as-usual approvals of highly polluting projects.

“It needs to engage with reality and own the decisions that could make or break our long-term climate targets.”

Drax project will replace existing coal-fired units to create biggest gas plant in UK

The project will see Drax replace existing coal-fired units with four new gas turbines, following the government’s decision to impose a phase-out of the high-polluting fossil fuel by 2025.

The government has made it clear it believes natural gas can still provide a reliable source of energy while the country attempts to scale-up on renewables – with Drax claiming its new plant would be capable of having carbon capture technology fitted in the future.

Energy supply currently accounts for more than a fifth of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions, which increases the pressure on power companies to deliver electricity from cleaner sources.

Former business secretary Andrea Leadsom’s original decision to grant permission for the new gas-fired plant came after the UK’s Planning Inspectorate told ministers the proposals would “undermine the government’s commitment, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut greenhouse emissions” by having “significant adverse effects”.

Following the latest court decision, Client Earth said it is now up to Drax to “explain how this project squares with the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) latest net-zero recommendations”.

The charity added that the power company also has to decide if a gas mega plant “fits what it told investors about a new focus on ‘flexible and renewable’ energy, if indeed it still wants to build it”.

A Drax spokesperson said: “Drax power station plays a vital role in the UK’s energy system, generating reliable electricity for millions of homes and businesses.”

They added that the company is aiming to capture more carbon dioxide than it emits by 2030 by burning plants or wood in other power stations and burying the emissions.

But the spokesperson said the project was not certain to go ahead because it depends on Drax’s investment decisions and on securing a capacity market contract from the government.

The firm has previously affirmed it will only proceed with the new plant if it receives a favourable contract under a UK government subsidy auction that commissions power generators to ensure there is enough power throughout the winter months.

Drax had originally planned to enter an auction in March last year, with the hope of opening the plant in 2023, but it said it would not proceed while the legal process was ongoing.

By James Murray  21 Jan 2021