In the tradition of Coalition environment ministers, Sussan Ley has knocked back a large renewable energy project while waving through three new coal mines. Callum Foote reports on an Environment ministry which has found more renewable projects “clearly unacceptable” than coal mines.
Australia now has 50 new coal projects on the horizon: five currently under construction and another 45 in the pre-construction phase.
Despite Australia’s Federal Environment Minister advocating for net-zero emissions by 2050, Sussan Ley has used her powers to extend the life of fossil fuel developments and stymie the growth of renewable energy.
In June this year, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley rejected the proposed Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH), which would see the first steps to establishing a Green Hydrogen manufacturing industry in Western Australia.
AREH originally received Federal Government environmental approval in December 2020 for 15 gigawatts of solar and wind power to be exported to Indonesia by subsea cable and sold in the Pilbara.
AREH then changed their plans to switch the export to green ammonia and expanded their proposal to 26GW of power and an 8000 person workers town.
The Minister’s reasons for the decision concern the impact pipelines and a jetty used to export ammonia could have on an area of Eighty Mile Beach.
Renewable energy would be used to extract hydrogen from water and combine it with nitrogen to produce carbon-free ammonia. The easy to ship ammonia would then be shipped to Asia for use in hydrogen power.
Ley knocked back the AREH project on grounds that it jeopardised various migratory bird species and the flatback turtle (natator depressus), leaving no room for amendment for the proposal.
In the meantime, Ley has approved three different coal mines: the Wollongong Coal expansion, Whitehaven’s Vickery Mine and Glencore’s Mangoola coal mine.
Out of these coal mines she has approved, two have been given the capacity to develop environmental management plans and offsets for the destruction of habitat for the threatened regent honeyeater, the swift parrot, and an endangered species of orchid.
Not so AREH with its threat to migratory birds and the natator depressus. The AREH was rejected by Sussan Ley, who designated the project “clearly unacceptable”.
Since 2000, only 11 out of 6,600 projects have been deemed “clearly unacceptable” by federal environment ministers.
Since the Coalition was elected in 2013, only three have been given the “clearly unacceptable” determination, two of which were renewable energy projects. Ley’s predecessors in the ministry – an unenviable role in this pro-fossil fuel government, are Greg Hunt, Josh Frydenberg and Melissa Price.
The other being a 2016 proposal for a renewable energy hub on Lord Howe Island which was rejected outright by then-environment minister Josh Frydenberg.
Proponents of the AREH have flagged the disparity between Ley’s approach to renewable energy projects and coal mines.
The Clean Energy Council, a renewable energy peak body, said at the time “the Federal Minister for the Environment has rejected the expanded proposal for this project prior to the completion of detailed environmental studies”; and that they were “seeking urgent clarification from the Federal Minister for the Environment to address the perception that this decision is inconsistent with well-established processes or with the treatment of non-renewable projects.”
The WA Minister for the Hydrogen Industry, Alannah MacTiernan, said that the WA government was “very surprised at how quickly the decision was met, and it appears that there wasn’t a lot of conversation with the proponent,” Ms MacTiernan said.
A spokesperson for MacTiernan has told Michael West Media that “it was very unusual for the Feds to reject the proposal out of hand. It is our understanding that when issues arise in proposals there is usually an opportunity for the proponents to collaborate with the Minister and find solutions.”
Conservation Council of WA director Piers Verstegen told independent oil and gas media Boiling Cold the environmental concerns in Ley’s statement appeared to have a sound basis, but they were matters that should be able to be addressed by the proponent.
“It is highly unusual for the Commonwealth to pre-empt a state assessment process like this,” Verstegen said.
“It stands in direct contrast to the approach that is being taken to giant new fossil fuel projects like the Woodside Scarborough to Pluto LNG development.”
Bruce Robertson, gas analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) says that if Green Hydrogen could get off the ground it stood to be a direct competitor with the gas industry.
Robertson notes that “as green hydrogen/ammonia will be a next-to-zero emission energy source, it stands as a direct competitor to gas peaking plants in the race to decarbonise the economy.”
“In contrast to gas baseload power plants, gas peaking plants are very, very greenhouse gas inefficient and highly polluting,” Robertson says.
With Andrew Forrest moving to have 50% of his new Wollongong Gas plant powered by hydrogen by the end of the decade, the gas industry faces rising competition, notwithstanding a government firmly on the side of old energy.
According to Andrew Dickson the Development Manager of Green Hydrogen & Ammonia Projects at CWP Global, one of the partners in the AREH, they are looking to submit a revised project proposal in due course.
Editor’s Note: Michael West Media wishes no ill upon the flat-back turtle. Nearly all species of sea turtle are now classified “endangered”, including the natator depressus (Latin translation: depressed swimmer). The planet however is also endangered by climate change and a majority of Australians could now be classified as “depressum nandi“, depressed swimmers in the rough Coalition sea of climate denial and clean energy obfuscation.
This article has been updated to include the Federal Environment Minister’s approval of AREH original proposal in December 2020, before the proponents significantly increased the project size and impact on the Ramsar site.