business energy politics

Big fossil fuel projects are no longer acceptable

In Saturday’s links round-up I made passing mention of two of Britain’s biggest climate hypocrisies – the new coal mine in Cumbria, and Drax’s huge new gas power plant. They’re both projects that have no business going ahead in 2021, and yet they had been given the green light.

As campaigners pointed out, these projects punctured the illusion that Britain was a leader on climate change, and it undermined preparations for COP26. New coal mines send all the wrong signals when the country is committed to phasing out coal in its energy supply – and has very nearly done so. And that new gas power station would be so huge that it could eventually account for a whole 75% of emissions from Britain’s electricity.

But here’s the interesting thing. On Tuesday Cumbria said it was reconsidering the coal mine.

And then yesterday Drax pulled out of the gas plant.

It’s been a good week for the climate then, and the campaigners who have fought these abominations. But it’s news that somehow feels hard to celebrate, because these battles shouldn’t be happening in the first place.

To start with, there’s the simple question of why these project won’t die. Both have rumbled on for years, and neither should have lasted this long. On their ‘about us‘ page, the first thing we read is that “Drax is enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future”. So why are they still planning Europe’s largest gas plant? They clearly don’t see the problem here.

Neither do the local authorities who wave these projects through – often with a degree of hesitation, it should be said, but not enough to say no to the possibility of local jobs. Government ministers aren’t getting it either, because they can ‘call in’ big or controversial planning decisions and chose not to in these cases. And the courts don’t seem to be able to stop them either, with legal bids to prevent them failing to make the case in court. Further back still, who is still funding these projects? Why haven’t they got the memo?

I find it troubling that there are so many decision makers, in every level of business and government, who aren’t considering climate targets in their deliberations. That needs to change. At this point it shouldn’t need protests and petitions to stop new coal mines. They should be out of the question.

To look at it the other way round though, you could argue that even with business and political leaders perfectly willing to push these projects through, they still weren’t viable. They didn’t have a social license to operate. The reputational hit was too great.

In the case of the coal mine, the council have re-opened the case because of ‘new information’, days after signing it off. I don’t know what this new information was, but I do know that James Hansen spoke of the “ignominy and humiliation” of those supporting new coal. Dozens of organisations, and the government’s own climate change advisory committee complained. There’s a risk that you just look idiots.

Same with Drax. If you want people to actually believe your ‘about us’ page, you can’t build enormous gas power stations. It just becomes untenable.

These are both ‘zombie’ projects, terrible ideas that keep coming back to life when you think they’re gone. Heathrow’s third runway is another one. They may have to be fought again. But I wonder how many other projects have been quietly shelved because of the bad press these two have received. How many councils have taken note and will vote no, the next time a fossil fuel project crosses their desks?

Perhaps, for all the frustrations of having to fight the same battles over and over again, the war itself is being won.


  1. “Drax is enabling a zero carbon, lower cost energy future”.- Don’t Drax cunningly mean by ‘enabling’ -We are keeping us going while we work towards a zero carbon, lower cost energy future!
    Also, did you mean your title to read ‘Big fossil fuel projects are NO longer acceptable?
    ‘They’ always make ‘us’ fight, fight and fight again to hopefully wear us out but just maybe there’s still hope. Even D.Attenborough is standing against such action albeit entirely without pointing the finger but merely with the use of ‘we’.

    1. Drax’s big problem is that they have this huge legacy infrastructure on their hands, and they want to make money out of it. They can’t put coal into their massive power station any more, so then they switched to biomass and have been calling it low carbon, even though it’s driving deforestation. Ultimately, as long as their plans are tied to that beast of a power station, they won’t be genuine solutions. And I think they probably know it!

  2. Typo in your title.
    Suspect the EngGov will get these two climate wrecking projects starters after COP26, they cannot risk these being a huge elephant in the room meanwhile. I wonder why Cumbria council are backtracking. The area is seismically vulnerable, they have an ancient nuke power station and nowhere to store the waste. Cancer deaths are higher than average.
    500 jobs? Not that many really they’d be much better off investing in renewables for the area. It’s poor, so they do need investment in industry and jobs.
    Let’s see what comes out in the wash. Keeping a close eye on what the English government are up to.

  3. Great to see these two projects backtracked on. But the expansion of Bradford airport was given the green light this week, despite Leeds Council having declared a climate emergency and committing to net zero by 2030. This also feels like another non-viable project given the current devastation of the airline industry and the likelihood that it isn’t coming back any time soon.

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