Australia’s and perhaps the world’s largest green energy and hydrogen project, the 26 GW, $50 billion Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) slated for the Pilbara region of Western Australia was last year granted Major Project Status by the Commonwealth government; last week it was stamped by the same government as “clearly unacceptable” on the grounds that it impacts wetlands near Eighty Mile Beach, which are designated as having international significance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley rejected the latest plans proposed for AREH — which shifted required infrastructure to suit production and export of green hydrogen and ammonia, rather than the original plan which mooted export of most of the project’s prodigious electricity output via underwater cable to Asia — on the grounds that they would pose a risk to threatened bird species that inhabit the wetlands.
The minister found that “the marine component of the infrastructure corridor would disrupt tidal movement and processes, and this would seriously impact the habitats and life-cycle of the native species dependent on the wetland,” a ministerial spokesperson said.
AREH consortium members include Intercontinental Energy (one of the world’s biggest green hydrogen developers); renewable energy developer CWP Global; Vestas wind-turbine system manufacturers; the Nyangumarta traditional owners; and the Australian National University’s Energy Change Institute.
In response to last week’s rejection, the group issued a statement saying, “We will take concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project.”
In October 2020 AREH was deemed to dovetail with the federal government’s Technology Investment Road map, which highlights hydrogen (renewable or fossil-fuel derived) development as an investment priority.
National Party leadership stoush creates an atmosphere of anti-net-zero grandstanding
The government’s decision comes at a time when its coalition is under pressure from leadership ructions in the National Party, which coalesced late last week into virulent rejection of a pending federal government commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050.
This morning those ructions turned into a spill that reinstates anti-net zero emissions populist Barnaby Joyce as head of the Nationals, and as deputy prime minister.
Ley’s decision predates today’s demonstration of the Nationals’ discontent, but seems to have caught other supporters of the AREH project unawares.
Allanah MacTiernan, the Western Australian minister for regional development and the hydrogen industry, said, “We’re very surprised at how quickly the decision was met, and it appears that there wasn’t a lot of discussion with the proponent.”
She also suggested that coal-based hydrogen projects, which often have significant environmental impacts related to emissions, have easily negotiated federal government approval.
Major Project Status implies a collaborative approach to challenges
Development of the AREH proposal began in 2014, and Lead Agency Status was granted by the Western Australian government in 2018, followed by the Federal Major Project Status conferral last year.
“Major Status” assumes fast-tracking — though not sidelining of environmental and other responsibilities — of the project in anticipation of the benefits it will bring to a region, or to the country as a whole.
A land parcel of 6,500 square kilometres has been secured for the combined wind and solar generation of the AREH through the Western Australian Department of Lands, and the project was identified as a major diversifier of the Pilbara economy, generating some 20,000 jobs during its 10 years of staged construction, and thousands of permanent jobs as operations come on line from 2027.
Some 3 GW of output from the vast project are 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 Australia’s export of resources.
The Western Australian government approved the first 15 GW stage of the AREH, in 2018, based on the recommendation of the state’s Environmental Protection Authority.
Back in 2017, the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment had also conditionally approved AREH’s then proposal.
The conditions related to several impacts, on terrestrial, marine and wetland habitat, but with regard to wetlands in particular, included: “To avoid and mitigate the impacts of infrastructure on threatened shorebirds and migratory birds the approval holder must: space wind turbines such that individual turbines in each row are separated by at least 800m and each row is separated at least four kilometres from the next row” and that the proponent should “not undertake construction or cable installation activities within the Eighty Mile Beach Ramsar Site boundary during peak migration periods for threatened shorebirds and migratory birds (1 October through to 31 March in any year)”.
What has materially changed about AREH’s development proposal?
AREH plans, more recently amended towards large-scale export of green ammonia, are understood to include development of pipelines to transport ammonia and the construction of a new town between Broome and Port Hedland to house workers.
With limited detail available, it is hard to fully understand how the project now warrants a decision that declares it “unacceptable” and therefore unapproved.
The Clean Energy Council (CEC) released a statement this morning saying it understands, “that the Federal Minister for the Environment has rejected the expanded proposal for this project prior to the completion of detailed environmental studies”.
The renewable energy industry body is now “seeking urgent clarification” and for Ley to “address the perception that this decision is inconsistent with well-established processes or with the treatment of non-renewable projects”.
In a report by ABC News this morning, MacTiernan said, “We need to be very clear about where the government stands with hydrogen.”
She, too, alluded to the approvals of “quite controversial coal projects” in the push to develop hydrogen of any hue.
She added, “Everyone, theoretically, has signed on to the notion that we will be ultimately replacing our natural gas exports with hydrogen exports. We’re going to need to work cooperatively to find a way in which this can be done.”
Getting local environmental settings right in the fight against global emissions
Asked by the ABC to comment on the rejection of AREH’s proposal this morning Professor Andrew Blakers from the ANU’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions emphasised the importance of locating and building renewable energy projects to high environmental standards, but added that he would like to see “all mine sites in the future” run “primarily from solar and/or wind”.
In the light of AREH’s potential to enable such ambitions for Australian minerals extraction, he hoped the project would be able to work around the issues raised by the federal government approval process.
“Firm adherence to guidelines means most of the potential environmental downsides will already have been thought out and ameliorated,” 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 appropriately assess and address any environmental impact” of the project under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
It describes the AREH as “a transformative economic opportunity for Australia, making a significant contribution to local and global decarbonisation efforts.”
Has decarbonisation been taken off the National agenda as the government heads towards an election with the emissions-breathing Nationals in tow?
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