Australia’s green energy and hydrogen project and possibly the world’s largest, the 26 GW, $ 50 billion Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) planned for the Pilbara region of Australia- Occidentale was granted last year Major project status by the Commonwealth government; last week it was stamped by the same government as “clearly unacceptable” on the grounds that it has an impact on wetlands near Eighty Mile Beach, which are designated as of international importance under the Ramsar Convention 1971 on wetlands.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley has rejected the latest plans proposed for AREH – which have relocated the infrastructure required to accommodate the production and export of green hydrogen and ammonia, rather than the original plan which envisioned exporting most of the project’s prodigious power generation via an undersea cable to Asia – on the grounds that they would pose a risk to endangered bird species that inhabit the wet area.
The minister found that “the marine component of the infrastructure corridor would disrupt the movement and processes of the tides, which would have a serious impact on the habitats and life cycle of native species dependent on the wetland,” said a spokesperson for the ministry.
Members of the AREH consortium include Intercontinental Energy (one of the world’s largest developers of green hydrogen); renewable energy developer CWP Global; manufacturers of Vestas wind turbine systems; the traditional owners of Nyangumarta; and the Institute for Energy Change at the Australian National University.
In response to last week’s rejection, the group issued a statement saying, “We will address concerns as we continue to work on the detailed design and technical aspects of the project.”
In October 2020, AREH was found to be in harmony with the federal government Roadmap for technology investment, which highlights the development of hydrogen (renewable or derived from fossil fuels) as an investment priority.
National Party leadership creates atmosphere of anti-net-zero demagoguery
The government’s move comes at a time when its coalition is under pressure from leadership cuts within the National Party, which turned late last week into a vocal rejection of a pending pledge from the federal government to zero net emissions by 2050.
This morning, those ruts turned into an oil spill that reinstates populist anti-zero net emissions Barnaby Joyce as head of the Nationals and as Deputy Prime Minister.
Ley’s decision predates today’s manifestation of Nationals discontent, but appears to have caught other supporters of Project AREH unawares.
Allanah MacTiernan, Australian Minister for Regional Development and the Hydrogen Industry, said: “We are very surprised at how quickly the decision was made, and it looks like there hasn’t been much discussions with the promoter. “
She also suggested that coal-based hydrogen projects, which often have significant environmental impacts from emissions, easily negotiated federal government approval.
The status of large project implies a collaborative approach to challenges
Development of the AREH proposal began in 2014, and lead agency status was granted by the government of Western Australia in 2018, followed by major federal project status last year.
“Major status” implies accelerating – but not sidelining environmental and other responsibilities – of the project in anticipation of the benefits it will bring to a region or the country as a whole.
A 6,500 square kilometer plot of land has been secured for AREH’s combined wind and solar generation through the Western Australia Department of Lands, and the project has been identified as a major diversifier of the Pilbara’s economy, generating some 20,000 jobs over its 10 years. construction in stages and thousands of permanent jobs as operations are commissioned from 2027.
Some 3 GW of the large project’s output is earmarked for large energy users in the Pilbara region, which may include new or expanded mines and downstream processing of minerals, enabling a value-added component to the export of resources of Australia.
The Government of Western Australia approved AREH’s first 15 GW tranche, in 2018, on the recommendation of the State Environmental Protection Authority.
In 2017, the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment also conditionally approved the AREH proposal.
Conditions related to several impacts, on terrestrial, marine and wetland habitats, but with regard to wetlands in particular, included: “To avoid and mitigate the impacts of infrastructure on threatened shorebirds and migratory birds, the license holder must: the individual wind turbines in each row are separated by at least 800 m and each row is separated by at least four kilometers from the next row ”and that the promoter should“ not undertake activities of construction or installation of cables within the Ramsar site of Eighty Mile Beach during peak migration periods. for shorebirds and threatened migratory birds (October 1 to March 31 of any year) ”.
What has materially changed in AREH’s development proposal?
AREH’s plans, more recently modified towards the large-scale export of green ammonia, are expected to include the development of pipelines to transport the ammonia and the construction of a new town between Broome and Port Hedland to house the workers.
With limited details available, it is difficult to fully understand how the project now justifies a decision that declares it “unacceptable” and therefore not approved.
The Clean Energy Council (CEC) issued a statement this morning saying it understands, “that the Federal Minister of the Environment has rejected the extended proposal for this project before the completion of detailed environmental studies.”
The renewable energy industry body “seeks urgent clarification” and for Ley to “respond to the perception that this decision is incompatible with well-established processes or with the treatment of non-renewable projects.”
In an ABC News report this morning, MacTiernan said, “We need to be very clear on the government’s position on hydrogen.
She also alluded to approvals of “fairly controversial coal projects” to develop hydrogen of any shade.
She added: “Everyone, theoretically, has subscribed to the idea that we will eventually replace our exports of natural gas with exports of hydrogen. We’re going to have to work cooperatively to find a way to do it. “
Clearly define local environmental parameters in the fight against global emissions
Asked by the ABC to comment on the rejection of the AREH proposal this morning, Professor Andrew Blakers of the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disasters stressed the importance of locating and build renewable energy projects to high environmental standards, but added that he would like to see “all mine sites in the future” operate “mainly from solar and / or wind power”.
In light of AREH’s potential to enable such ambitions for Australian mineral extraction, he hoped the project would be able to bypass issues raised by the federal government’s approval process.
“Strict adherence to guidelines means that most of the potential environmental drawbacks will have already been thought through and improved,” he said.
In its statement, the CEC says it expects the Commonwealth to work in partnership with the AREH consortium and “provide the necessary guidance to assess and appropriately address any environmental impact” of the project under the Act on environmental protection and biodiversity conservation.
He describes AREH as “a transformative economic opportunity for Australia, making a significant contribution to local and global decarbonization efforts”.
Has decarbonation been taken off the national agenda as the government heads for an election with nationals looking for emissions?
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