Environment campaigners said the Government suffered a "major blow" yesterday after the energy giant E.ON argued that a decision on whether it should build Britain's first coal-fired power station since 1984 should be delayed until later in the year.
The company said that a decision on whether to approve the application, at Kingsnorth in Kent, should wait until ministers had finished their consultation into carbon capture and storage (CCS). The move, which threatened to throw the Government's energy policy into confusion, comes after John Hutton, the Business Secretary, accused his opponents of indulging in "gesture politics" last month in a speech interpreted as a signal of his support for new coal-fired power stations.
Greenpeace said E.ON had expected a decision on Kingsnorth by the end of May at the latest, with contractors ready to start building work.
E.ON's chief executive, Dr Paul Golby, said: "Decarbonising fossil fuels, and especially coal, is one of the key challenges to be overcome if we are to combat climate change and we aim to be right at the centre of the debate. That is why we have consistently supported the Government's [CCS] competition and that is why we have entered Kingsnorth.
"That is also why we are proposing to Government that the Kingsnorth planning decision is made following their consultation process, when we will all know exactly what is required by the Government for a station to be deemed CCS-ready."
Campaigners described the delay as a "significant setback". The Greenpeace executive director, John Sauven, said: "E.ON's Kingsnorth climbdown is a major blow to John Hutton and his plans to have a new coal-fired power station under construction this summer."