Australia has pulled the plug on a proposed 26-gigawatt plan to produce green hydrogen and ammonia from wind and solar power, just months after the project was awarded major project status by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coal-friendly national government.
The announcement this week by Environment Minister Sussan Ley left the proponents of the A$50-billion Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) in Western Australia’s Pilbara region shocked and “blindsided,” RenewEconomy reports.
Ley said the plan’s environmental impacts were “clearly unacceptable” under the country’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. “The Minister found the marine component of the infrastructure corridor would disrupt tidal movements and processes and this would seriously impact the habitats and lifecycle of the native species dependent upon the wetland and accordingly the ecological character of the Eighty-mile Beach Ramsar site itself,” a spokesperson told RenewEconomy. “Any future amended proposal would be a matter for the proponent.”
That was after the first phase of the project, involving seven gigawatts of wind, two gigawatts of solar, and four undersea cables, “had secured environmental approval from the Western Australia government, following a favourable recommendation from the Environmental Protection Authority in May of 2020,” RenewEconomy writes.
“The renewable energy hub was initially expected to go through fast approvals processes toward its target of first exports by 2028 as it would bolster the nation’s ambitions to become a world-leading exporter of hydrogen,” Bloomberg Green adds. “Australia unveiled a national hydrogen strategy with a goal of commercial exports by 2030, and the fuel is one of five priority technologies in its road map to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.”
Instead, the hub was scuttled by the same government that approved Adani’s massive Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin despite local concerns about ecosystem disruption, said BloombergNEF Australia Analyst Will Edmonds—not to mention the mine’s devastating climate impact. The government has also been an avid supporter of new oil and gas development, while steadfastly refusing to increase its ambition under the Paris climate agreement.
“The federal government is all too willing to fast-track coal and gas projects, including throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at subsidies for exploration, infrastructure for new gas basins, and unproven carbon capture and storage,” Don Gocher director of climate and environment at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, told RenewEconomy. “If the government is to be taken seriously on developing a hydrogen economy, companies prioritizing genuinely zero-emissions projects should be assisted to reach a final investment decision.”
Yet Australia “has defended its fossil fuel industries despite growing concern over the role coal and natural gas play in climate change,” Bloomberg writes. “Morrison, who once brandished a lump of coal in parliament in support of the fuel, has declined to set a hard target date for the nation to reach net-zero emissions, drawing criticism from investors and allies.” (Although two can play at that game.)
On Wednesday, Western Australia’s Labor government called the cancellation “premature” and “perplexing”, noting that the decision was made just a month after the project was submitted for review. By contrast, the Adani mine received a four-year review.
“The decision appears to have occurred with no meaningful engagement by the federal government with either the proponent or the state,” said Regional Development Minister Allanah MacTiernan, whose responsibilities include the hydrogen industry.
“The rapid rejection of this project sends the wrong messages about Australia as a leader in the emerging renewable hydrogen industry, and has potentially far-reaching implications for proponents considering investing in hydrogen in Australia,” MacTiernan added. “This project has the potential to show just how we can transition away from fossil fuels towards green energy generation. I urge the federal government to work constructively with the proponent to work through any issues of concern.”
“One of the biggest surprises about Minister Ley’s decision on the project has been the speed at which it was delivered, in advance of the updated AREH project’s impact modelling being completed—a deviation from normal process, you might say—and with zero consultation,” writes RenewEconomy reporter Sophie Vorrath.
That phrasing was a callback to Ley’s own claim Tuesday that she’d been “blindsided” by a draft recommendation from the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to assign endangered status to the Great Barrier Reef. “It is almost unheard of for a site to be added to the endangered list, or recommended…without the necessary consultation leading up to it,” the minister complained. “It is a deviation from normal process.”
RenewEconomy has more on Australia’s failure to protect the reef and, more generally, to do its part in response to the climate crisis.