Features, Hydrogen Hype

Brown coal-to-hydrogen project’s secretive sod-turning ambushed

The sod-turning ceremony for a $500 million brown coal-to-hydrogen project at Hastings, Victoria, on July 19, with Australian politicians and Japanese industrialists. Photo: Matt Canavan, Facebook

By Eve Sinton

Fossil Fool Bulletin 2.33 • 26 July 2019

Federal resources minister Matt Canavan, with other politicians and Japanese industrialists, kept quiet about a sod-turning ceremony for a controversial brown coal-to-hydrogen trial project at Hastings, Victoria, on July 19.

But activists from eight groups opposed to the project found themselves on the scene at the right time to convey their ‘sod-off’ message.

The $500 million trial – to which the federal and Victorian governments have each chipped in $50 million – is trialling one of the dirtiest possible methods of hydrogen production.

While prolonging the life of the extremely climate-destroying brown coal industry in the Latrobe Valley, the trial also risks damage to the fragile marine environment of Westernport Bay.

Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council, Save Westernport, Blue Wedges, Friends of The Earth, Victorian National Parks Association Environment Victoria, Preserve Westernport and Southern Peninsula Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association have signed on to a letter asking for marine-pest monitoring following the trial, and are calling for the whole project to be dumped.

In a statement, the groups said, “The last thing we should be embarking on in Westernport is another inappropriate outdated fossil fuels project that would threaten our remaining coastal ecosystems. Mangrove beds are our first line defence against coastal inundation and the impacts of climate change. Westernport has many supporters who understand the significance of the bay’s Biosphere and Ramsar wetlands and we will fight to protect them.

“We are disappointed to learn that the trial is commencing with absolutely no public consultation, or input from Mornington Peninsula Shire Council. It has been labelled it an ‘Essential Service’ which it isn’t; it is a trial to nowhere. We question the sense of doing a trial for such a flawed project.”

Environment Victoria’s safe climate campaigner, Cat Nadel said, “Before the announcement in April 2018 there had been no public information or consultation, and there is a real risk that this is just the latest in a string of coal boondoggles that have failed to deliver, and that distract from the real task of planning a diverse and sustainable economy.”

Activists said, “We had the force on our side this morning as we managed to arrive exactly on time at the sod turning ceremony being conducted to open the Kawasaki brown-coal-to-hydrogen trial. The whole event was so secretive, we only found out yesterday, and it was almost by ‘fluke’ that we were there in the right place and at the right time.” Photo: Save Westernport

Making brown coal look green

The companies involved in the project are Hydrogen Engineering Australia, Kawasaki, J-Power, AGL, Iwatani and Marubeni.

Brown coal will be mined in the Latrobe Valley, and a gasification plant that uses coal to produce hydrogen will be built. The gas will be liquefied and shipped to Japan.

The project has two stages, a pilot and a commercial stage.

The pilot project is relatively small and only involves 160 tonnes of coal, but will emit 30 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of hydrogen produced. It is anticipated to be operational by 2020 and will only run for one year. A decision to proceed to a much larger commercial stage will occur after that, and would not be operational until the 2030s.

In the meantime it is understood that the pilot stage gasification and liquefaction plants are intended to be decommissioned.

Creating hydrogen from coal is just as polluting as burning coal for ordinary power supply.

Monash University alternative energy expert Dr Patrick Moriarty has said “it is just a way of making brown coal look green… that would do nothing for the climate.”

Senior Energy Adviser to the Energy Transition Hub at Melbourne University, Simon Holmes à Court has noted that “While hydrogen itself is a clean fuel, using brown coal to produce hydrogen fuel is highly polluting. Unless and until this project captures and stores its emissions, the project will produce some of the dirtiest fuel possible.”

The concern is that this pilot project could be the thin end of the wedge. If it is successful, a commercial scale plant would be much larger and more polluting.

Relying on unproven CCS technology

The commercial scale coal to hydrogen plant will not go ahead without carbon capture and storage (CCS), according to proponents.

CCS is the theory that you can capture CO2 and store it underground. There are unknown consequences of storing gas underground. Scientists have identified risks to soil and ocean acidification and erosion associated with this process. Leakage can also occur, undermining the argument that emissions are avoided.

Environment Victoria says, “It is unrealistic to assume CCS technology will be at a safe, affordable and usable stage by the time the pilot project concludes. This increases the risk that a commercial scale coal to hydrogen project could be developed without CCS, leading to significant climate pollution.”

Marine environment put at risk

Local conservation group Westernport and Peninsula Protection Council (WPPC) has raised concerns about a number of environmental risks of the storage and shipping aspects, if the project proceeds to commercial scale.

Firstly, Japanese ships entering Westernport Bay will be empty and may require ballast, which means they are likely to carry marine pests like the Northern Pacific seastar. This starfish is thought to be responsible for decimating fish stocks in Port Phillip Bay. Westernport Bay currently does not have this pest, so WPPC is strongly opposed to activity that increases the chance of its introduction.

WPPC has also flagged the risk that if a commercial scale project were to go ahead, the increase in hydrogen ships in the area may require the dredging of Westernport Bay, an option that would be detrimental to the unique and internationally listed marine ecosystems.

The consortium has indicated that the pilot project will only involve one ship every three months, which will be 4.5 m in depth and not require ballast.

Carbon to be pumped offshore

The success of the project is linked to the government run and funded CarbonNet, which wants to build a waste-carbon injection and storage facility (CCS) just sevenkilometers away from the coastal town of Golden Beach.

Still in its testing stage, this project has already involved damaging seismic testing offshore, which impacted the Golden Beach community and local sealife.

Qit Coal says, “So far the project has consumed $100 million in public money, and will require even more funding to build the sequestration machinery if it proceeds to the next stage. Then the project, set up with public money, would be transferred to private ownership.

“Australia wide, carbon capture and storage technology has failed to reach commercial scale despite heavy investment from the government.

“A prominent example of a unsuccessful waste-carbon storage project is Chevron Australia’s Gorgon Project. With $60 million public money this project was supposed to begin in 2016 but is yet to capture and store any carbon. Energy consultants estimate that by March 2019 the equivalent of 6.2 million tonnes of CO2 that was supposed to be captured will not have been.”

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