Biofuelwatch issues legal challenge to decision to allow carbon capture installation at Drax power plant

Biofuelwatch UK has issued a High Court legal challenge to the decision to grant Drax Power Limited consent to install carbon capture technology at the Yorkshire biomass power plant.

It would effectively allow the generation of electricity from burning almost entirely imported wood pellets to continue with large Government subsidies to 2035. Drax received £893 million in renewable energy subsidies in 2021 and a further £617m in 2022.

Biofuelwatch UK, which campaigns against the controversial burning of biomass, says the Energy Secretary’s decision to give development consent for the technology at up to two of the four biomass units in Selby is unlawful because likely harmful environmental effects were not assessed or taken into account, in breach of the 2017 Infrastructure Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (EIA) Regulations.

As a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), the Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) needed the EIA regulations to be followed carefully before it could be given government go-ahead.
In its application for judicial review, Biofuelwatch contends the Energy Secretary’s decision failed to comply with the EIA regulations in three ways:

  • By zero-rating the carbon (CO2) emissions from biomass burning, i.e. treating it as producing no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, despite the obvious and indisputable fact that the combustion of biomass releases huge quantities of GHG emissions
  • By excluding the CO2 emissions from the units to be fitted with the carbon capture technology
  • By treating the works to construct and operate transport and storage facilities for captured carbon as a separate project. Biofuelwatch says the Humber Low Carbon Pipelines Project to transfer the CO2 and store it in rock formations under the North Sea is essential for the Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS) to operate as a whole and should have been treated as the same project for EIA purposes.
    The impact of these errors on the decision was significant; they allowed the Energy Secretary to treat the project as resulting in a net reduction in emissions of 7,975,620 tCO2e per annum.

Katy Brown, Bioenergy campaigner with Biofuelwatch UK, said:

“The Energy Secretary’s decision to accept Drax’s claim that its BECCS scheme will result in a net reduction in emissions is extremely dangerous and irresponsible given we are at a tipping point in the climate crisis. Cutting down trees and shipping them around the world to be burnt in power stations can never be a climate solution. Drax is the single biggest carbon emitter in the UK. Its promise to capture and store this carbon uses a technology unproven with wood burning at this scale. Every large-scale coal and gas power plant equipped with Carbon Capture Storage has failed to meet its target for carbon capture performance. It is irrational to think that Carbon Capture Storage on a wood burning power plant can be more successful.

“Consenting to this madness means fossil fuel emissions will continue in the false expectation that they will be captured. Burning millions of tonnes of imported wood means continued devastation of the world’s forests with the associated impacts on animals, biodiversity and local communities. BECCS diverts money and attention from genuine climate solutions such as wind, solar and insulation which would reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere in the timescale needed – this decade.”

Dr Andrew Boswell, who gave evidence at the planning examination, said:

“The Secretary of State failed to lawfully assess the climate change impacts from the industrial scale burning of wood proposed at the Drax BECCS facility. When the emissions from the supply chain and the wood combustion itself are correctly calculated then the planned carbon capture power plant would be a large net positive emitter – this is even with Drax’s very optimistic estimates of how much carbon could be captured.

“This legal challenge is crucially important as it highlights that the UK Government’s reliance on so-called negative emissions technology is a risky and flawed policy for meeting our climate targets. Such technology is a deeply dangerous distraction from the real task of transitioning to a genuine renewable energy system, which must include energy storage and demand reduction on the path to reducing the UK’s impacts on the climate. The case is also important as it sends the message to international policy makers that BECCS cannot provide the genuine emissions reductions required to stabilise the global climate this century.”

Leigh Day solicitor Rowan Smith, who represents Biofuelwatch UK, said:

“The Government claims that it can ignore greenhouse gas emissions from the operation of Drax simply because an entirely separate regime says those emissions are reported in the country from where the biomass is imported. Our client’s arguments seek to expose that legal fiction. They also shine a light on whether the Government has minimised the environmental impacts by treating the transport and storage of the captured carbon as a separate project. We hope the Court will agree that these arguments warrant a full hearing.”