Andrea Leadsom overrules Planning Inspectorate to push through Drax coal to gas conversion

  • Oct 07, 2019
  • Business Green

Drax Group has received the go-ahead to build new gas plants on the site of an old coal-fired power station, after Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom overruled the advice of the Planning Inspectorate that had opposed the project on climate-related grounds.

In a letter sent to Drax on Friday, Leadsom argued she is required to have a presumption in favour of granting permission for the project, regardless of concerns over carbon emissions.

She argued the UK will still need fossil fuel power in the future and said it was not for the planning system to block individual projects on climate grounds. 

Drax, which is the UK's largest single emitter of carbon dioxide,  claims the 3.6GW project will help the UK transition to net zero carbon emissions by helping to displace higher-emitting power sources and providing flexible power to support renewables.

However, climate campaigners, including environmental law firm ClientEarth, say the scheme will lock in fossil fuel power at a time when the UK needs to be completely decarbonising its energy system.

The proposed scheme is designated as nationally significant infrastructure project, and therefore bypasses local planning laws. However, any such project must comply with relevant national policy statements and a requirement that its benefits outweigh any adverse impacts.

The Planning Inspectorate had advised the Secretary of State to refuse the application, on the basis that gas-fired power "is not sustainable and does not contribute to decarbonisation" and therefore conflicts with the decarbonisation objective in the National Policy Statement for Energy. It added that plans to add carbon capture technology to the site could not be considered as mitigation because the systems required are "largely untested".

The Planning Inspectorate also argued the development was unnecessary as a number of other gas-fired power plants are already planned.

But Leadsom argued "there is no guarantee" these will be completed, and that there is therefore a substantial need for new gas development.

Drax, meanwhile, has consistently argued its long term plans will see it deploy biomass and carbon capture technologies to help curb its emissions over time.

In contrast, ClientEarth, which lodged an objection to the plant earlier this year, said it was "disappointed" by the ruling.

"The UK has already greenlit more gas capacity than the government's own forecasts estimate will be required through to 2035," warned Sam Junter Jones, a lawyer for the firm. "Approving Drax's plant takes this to three times the government's estimates - risking either a carbon budget blowout, a huge stranded asset requiring propping up by the taxpayer, or a combination of the two."

But it is not full steam ahead for the project quite yet. Drax still needs to secure a contract through the government's Capacity Market to underpin its investment. The Capacity Market scheme has been suspended since last year over concerns the initiative unfairly favours fossil fuel generators, but is tipped to be re-approved by the European Commission later this month.

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