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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Inner city latte sippers and big chemical plants

As a vegan, I was a little miffed at not being tagged by Michael McCormack’s inner city latte sipper comment; but I’m guessing he has an equal repugnance for soy cappuccino drinkers, so I guess he just had a lapse of concentration and missed us.

Nonetheless, I confess significant sympathy for the reasoning behind McCormack’s outburst; even if it was clumsy and mistargeted, as befits a country boy with a caffeine deficiency. The way in which export income flows through and enriches a country isn’t always obvious to people who skipped their Economics 101 lectures to guzzle coffee. And in Australia, a significant amount of said export income has always come from a litany of cruel, dirty, and environmentally damaging industries; including gas, coal, cattle, and iron-ore, among others. We have long since stopped riding on the sheep’s back, but our new mounts are little better. It irks me, just like it irks McCormack, that people don’t understand such things; but for different reasons.

Like McCormack, I think people should understand our economic reliance on export industries, but not so we can celebrate and continue the worst of them. But so that we can change. We have to build better industries; grow better burgers using plants, and engineer not just a zero carbon energy infrastructure, but a minimally destructive one.

So I get a touch of the McCormacks every time I hear the claim “we are blessed with abundant renewable resources”; whether it comes from latte sippers or Bundy guzzling country boys (or girls).

If you don’t understand the processes of harvesting renewable energy at scale, or have swallowed the marketing hype about “green hydrogen” or “green ammonia”, then the rejection of the 666,038 hectare Asian Renewable Energy Hub in Western Australia a few weeks back will have come as a shock.

You can read some news reports in the usual places: Reneweconomy, ABC, The Guardian, and the Australian Financial Review (AFR).

The AFR reports that the rejection has been ‘’slammed by green energy advocates’’. The major reason for the slamming seems to be that the rejection comes before detailed modelling of impacts has been done. But the AFR, like all the other media, didn’t discuss or analyse the stated reasons for the rejection.

You don’t always need detailed modelling to realise that a project sucks.

Let’s be really clear about this. What was rejected wasn’t so much a vast renewable energy project but a massive chemical plant producing millions of tonnes of a toxic and dangerous chemical. What was objected to most clearly was piping millions of tonnes of this toxic and dangerous chemical across a globally important Ramsar wetland and out 20km into the Ocean to a shipping terminal.

Minister Sussan Ley’s reasons for the decision are given in a brief document here. There are quite a few places in this document which spell out the logic: no, detailed modelling hasn’t been done but the prima facae case for rejection is overwhelming. Paraphrasing, the document says that blind Freddy and global experience of similar projects can tell you what will happen when you pipe ammonia around and into a shipping terminal handing 250 movements of large tankers a year; even before the modelling. Similarly blind Freddy, and extensive experience tell you plenty about what the brine outlets of the associated desalination plants do to local environments; and the proposal includes a desalination plant as well as a township of 8,000 very close to a globally important Ramsar site. Ramsar is an International treaty designed to protect wetlands and their plant and animal life. It’s a pretty bad treaty, because you can still torture ducks in Ramsar wetlands; meaning wound and cripple them with shotguns, but you are required to do it sustainably; unrelenting torture being more acceptable than extinction in the view of this treaty. But for all it’s faults it’s better than nothing and Australia is a signatory. We should be working to strengthen it, not ignore it.

Ley isn’t a conservation biologist; she’s a politician, a Government Minister. She is relying on departmental advice; presumably expert advice.

Should she have overridden that advice about the impacts of the project?

Perhaps she should have said something like: “Oh, I know about all those vulnerable bird species, and migration staging habitat, blah blah blah, but this is renewable energy we are talking about! Renewable energy projects don’t need to worry about biodiversity impacts; they are benign by definition. After all, those rules were really only put in place to mess with fossil fuel projects, it’s not like the rules actually matter; and besides, this isn’t ammonia, it’s green ammonia, which is an entirely different and benign form of NH3!”

Would something like that have pleased renewable energy advocates?

As for the fact that careful studies weren’t submitted as part of the application; whose fault is that? Did they really think that such studies wouldn’t be required? Perhaps they thought that serious biodiversity work is only required for vast chemical plants not associated with renewable energy projects.

The company in charge, NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd (NWIP) made various damage mitigation proposals that Ley’s office considered. They didn’t say much at all about the ammonia pipeline and shipping, despite it being clearly a critical factor in the rejection.

NWIP said the ammonia would be piped in buried double pipes (a pipe within a pipe). This is an excellent technology, similar to that used in sodium cooled nuclear power plants. If the inner pipe leaks, you can detect and fix it long before it can breach the second pipe. But it wasn’t leaks that worried Ley’s experts. It was that waves would destabilise and un-bury and thus “float” areas of the pipeline; causing catastrophic failure. Ley’s report referred to ``numerous failures of submarine pipelines’’. Google and you will find that this has indeed been a serious issue with undersea pipelines; and I don’t imagine waves take too much notice of whether the pipe is single or double. Nor does it help much knowing in real time that you’ve just spilled bucket loads of a toxic chemical into a sensitive eco-system.

Keep in mind that we are talking about an ammonia pipeline (and associated storage tanks). In 1989 a 10,000 tonne ammonia tank in Lithuania ruptured. The resulting fire burned for 3 days, killed 7 people and spread a toxic cloud of ammonia and nitrous oxides over 400 square kilometres. Had it been a radioactive cloud, somebody would have used an obsolete (and simply wrong) theory to estimate the cancers that might be generated in coming decades. There may well be some cancers which have resulted from that tank rupture; not from the ammonia, but from the nitrogen oxides which formed. But nobody bothers about such things except when the problem is radioactive. Ammonia accidents are common, google will find plenty, but deaths are rare; one database records 18 deaths and about 1500 injuries between 1994 and 2013. Some of the injuries are horrific. Ammonia burns eyes and lungs in horrible ways. If ammonia is used for energy storage, we can expect accidents to rise. Which isn’t a reason not to use ammonia for this purpose, but we definitely have to choose sites carefully.

NWIP is proposing a 60,000 tonne tank; 6 times bigger than the tank which ruptured in Lithuania.

Ley’s experts assume that, as with other Australian ammonia operations, there will be spills and accidents and noted the lack of spill mitigation plans in the proposal. Should they have approved the plan on the basis of easily made claims about “best practice engineering design”?

Who recalls the ongoing conflict over damage to the First Nations rock art on the Burrup Peninsular in WA? The main suspect is emissions from fertiliser and LNG production; mostly ammonia. The nearby Yara ammonia plant produces about 850,000 tonnes of ammonia each year; rather less than the 10 million tonnes estimated in the NWIP proposal.

Is 10 million tonnes of ammonia per year a little or a lot?

It’s only enough to displace about 3 percent of our annual LNG exports; despite needing 250 ships a year to move it. So to replace all of our LNG exports we’ll need another 29 AREH sized projects; with sites amounting to an area 3 times the size of Tasmania.

The energy in that 10 million tonnes is similar to what you’d get from just 300 tonnes of uranium yellow-cake; which you could move in 15 standard shipping containers on one ship. What could be better, safer or simpler? Certainly not 10 million tonnes of ammonia.

The NWIP proposal didn’t address the problems of the pipeline at all. They seemed to think that just saying it would be a buried double pipeline with real time leak monitoring would be enough; which it probably would be for RenewEconomy readers; but not for Ley’s departmental experts.

Consider also how NWIP proposed to deal with wind farms killing birds. They say they’ll count the dead bodies after the farms are operating. That’s great. And if the body count is really high, what then?

NWIP are, quite reasonably, pretty safe in presuming that nobody will ask for the turbines to be removed after they have been built. Note that they forgot to say they’d count bats; probably the main animal species killed by wind farms. Did they provide any data on bird and bat mortality at other Australian wind farms? No.

A few years back I went looking for data on wind farm bird and bat kills. I found plenty … mostly from the US and Europe. Australian wind farms, with the exception of a few in Tasmania, don’t seem to bother; or perhaps just don’t publish their data in scientific journals. Why should they, after all? Wind farms are renewable, and thus benign by definition.

The NWIP proposal also promises to reduce the habitat clearing footprint; despite the revised proposal actually almost doubling the clearing footprint. What will they do with all that vegetation? It will be burned for electricity on-site in “upto 40MW of biomass generators”. These are also described as “Backup” generators.

The NWIP proposal was for 10,800 MW of solar panels and 1,743 wind turbines but they still reckon they’ll need a 40MW backup generator burning native vegetation. Think about it.

The proposal also promises an ``innovative approach to mowing and ongoing operational vegetation management to manage fuel load’’. What is innovative mowing? Solar powered lawn mowers or perhaps 24x7 methane producing sheep?

The prior NWIP proposal, which had an in-principle tick of approval, was to transmit electricity by undersea transmission line rather than ammonia; a transmission cable has it’s own problems, but it is intrinsically a much more self contained object; it can’t leak tonnes of deadly chemical into the ocean.

If you want to maximise your environmental impact while minimising your energy output, then AREH is the project for you; it may be low carbon, but otherwise, it sucks.

The Revised Project Proposal is here. There’s terrific footnote on page 3; “This document has been designed for double-sided printing”. I’m so glad. They want to build on 666,038 hectares and clear over 20,000, and pump 10 million tonnes of a toxic chemical over a sensitive wetland for decades, but they think that double sided printing will help establish their green credentials; typical.

The renewable fan club hasn’t actually woken up to the fact that renewable energy on the scale required to roll back climate change isn’t a cuddly cottage industry, it’s a massive industrial enterprise with all of the associated problems. The renewable fan club seems happy to accept children in mines in the DRC to get cheap batteries, happy to accept Uyghur sweatshops in China and people crushing quartz with little hammers to make solar panels. They think that being renewable is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free pass to make money.



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