Prime Minister Turnbull, Darren Chester MP, Senator Cash, Russell Broadbent MP and others in Victoria's Latrobe Valley (screen shot via sbs.com.au).

The Turnbull Government's "brown coal to hydrogen" project is poised to create 400 jobs in Victoria's Latrobe Valley, but at what cost? Asks Belinda Jones.

ON THURSDAY (12 April), Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Deputy Leader of the House Darren Chester, Employment Minister Senator Michaelia Cash, Member for McMillan Russell Broadbent and others gathered in Victoria's Latrobe Valley with business leaders from Australia and Japan.

They were all there to spruik plans to convert Australia’s abundant reserves of brown coal to hydrogen — a "clean" energy source. 

Given that the Prime Minister claims he "creates" 1,000 jobs per day, then one could speculate that 400 jobs would be less than half a day’s work for this job-creating Government. Gippsland has an approximate population of 266,020, so the creation of 400 jobs is not substantial in comparison to the population, by any means. 

Nor does it seem like a lot of jobs for the level of multi-million dollar investment, bipartisan support and Japanese interest. So why all the fuss?

 Prime Minister Turnbull stated in his speech at AGL’s Loy Yang plant:

“This is a very exciting project and it’s one that I have often discussed with your Prime Minister, Vice Minister, Shinzo Abe.”

In January 2018, During the Prime Minister’s Japan visit, Hellenic Shipping News reported:

In coal, the agreement paves the way for further collaboration in the hydrogen energy supply chain, which includes work by a Kawasaki Heavy Industries-led consortium to investigate the potential for using brown coal in Victoria's Latrobe Valley to convert into liquid hydrogen for export to Japan for use in regional industry and power supply.

AGL CEO Andy Vesey said:

‘"Hydrogen could be a clean fuel to replace coal. And Australia can take advantage of this energy source."

Well, not directly, because the hydrogen will predominantly go offshore to Japan. 

The Australian Financial Review reported:

'AGL Energy will host a $500 million trial led by Japanese giant Kawasaki Heavy Industries to convert Victorian brown coal into liquid hydrogen for export in what represents a major scaling-up of efforts to commercialise the clean energy technology.'  

RenewEconomy's Giles Parkinson summed up the new venture perfectly: 

Yes, that’s right: $500 million to build a pilot plant that will operate for just 12 months and produce a grand total “up to” three tonnes of hydrogen over the whole year. I had to read that ten times and get on the phone twice to check. World-first, perhaps, because it is hard to imagine another country that would think of turning brown coal into hydrogen and at such an outrageous cost — least of all one with such rich wind and solar resources, and which already has some cheaper renewables-fuelled hydrogen projects of its own.

This new technology has bipartisan support from the Federal Coalition Government and the Victorian State Labor Government. 

Victoria’s Regional Development Minister Jaala Pulford said:

“Hydrogen is a fuel of the future and we want to capitalise on that right here in the Latrobe Valley.”

Toyota has spent several years developing hydrogen fuel cell technology, with the Mirai hydrogen car now available in Australia, despite the fact that the Latrobe Valley’s "brown coal to hydrogen" technology being only in the feasibility stage.  

None of this is new information. In fact, Senator Kim Carr test drove Toyota’s concept car and also penned an article on the subject for Fairfax Media on 13 November 2015.

Wrote Carr:

'Hydrogen can be extracted from brown coal in a process known as gasification. This process, unlike hydrogen fuel-cell cars themselves, does generate large amounts of carbon dioxide.'

And therein lies the main problem. Carr admits in his article that ‘large amounts of carbon dioxide’ will be produced through the gasification process and in order to mitigate those emissions going into the atmosphere, the ‘brown coal to hydrogen’ technology relies entirely on geosequestration

Geosequestration (carbon capture and storage, or CCS) is basically capturing CO2 emissions then pumping them through a giant pipeline stretching several hundred kilometres off Golden Beach, Victoria and burying massive amounts of CO2 under the seabed in a gaseous or slurry form. A 166 km² marine seismic survey was completed in the area in February 2018. The "CarbonNet Project", funded by the Federal and Victorian governments, is managed by the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

The world’s largest geosequestration project, the Gorgon Project on Barrow Island, off WA’s coastline, writes the Australian Museum:

'... is expected to bury an estimated 125 million tonnes of CO2 in a depleted gas well beneath the island.'

A primary and secondary containment seal, or "cap rock", will form a natural barrier to prevent the buried COfrom escaping into the ocean water. When the highly active COoccurs naturally, it is usually found around volcanoes and geysers, where it actively makes its way to the surface and emits CO2 into the atmosphere. Geosequestration claims to "trap" the CO2 under the "cap rock" to "settle" for over 1,000 years safely. Should that CO2 escape from under the sea and blend with ocean water, it will form carbonic acid, which will result in ocean acidification or a shift towards pH- neutral ocean water.

"Normal pH of seawater is around 8.1. It's weakly alkaline," says Dr Ben McNeil, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales.

Warns McNeil:

If we don't do anything [to slow carbon dioxide emissions] we'll essentially double the acidity [of the oceans] by the end of the century."

... A slightly more acidic ocean spells bad news for humpback whales because their favourite food, a tiny prawn-like crustacean called krill has a shell which is partly made from calcium carbonate. This substance dissolves, or even fails to form when acidity rises.  

In addition to the possible impact of ocean acidification, seismic activity in the area must be considered in order to determine the environmental impacts of CCS.

Duty seismologist at Geoscience Australia, Marco Maldoni, claims that Victoria’s “Strzelecki and Otway ranges indicate that the Earth's crust has already undergone a lot of stress, creating weak fault lines” and “faultlines that are very much still active”.

However, scientists still claim little is known about active fault lines in the region. 

The Seismology Research Centre, referring to Victoria’s Selwyn fault line, suggests:

... the Selwyn fault might be the epicentral region for a large earthquake near Melbourne. 

Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne Mike Sandiford who conducted a study of the Sewyn fault line says:

"When these big quakes reoccur, they have the potential to cause catastrophic damage to cities such as Melbourne, Adelaide, and the Latrobe Valley area, which straddle some of these major faults lines."

Mike Sandiford also said“the Selwyn fault line was capable of sizeable quakes between six and seven in magnitude.”

The CO2CRC Project, designed to support the CarbonNet Project, will build on existing research and development facilities at the CO2CRC Otway National Research Facility. CO2CRC lists among its board members former Resources Minister Martin Ferguson AM. 

Whistleblower Simone Marsh cites Ferguson as one of the people instrumental in applying pressure to stakeholders, including then Environment Minister Peter Garrett, to approve Queensland’s LNG plants and downstream coal seam gas (CSG) operations.

According to Garrett, despite unambiguous advice from Geosciences Australia regarding inadequate assessment of groundwater impacts on the Great Artesian Basin, intense pressure was applied. Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan and resources minister Martin Ferguson had been "acutely focused on the decision".

Peter Garrett stated in his memoir, Big Blue Sky, that he never signed off on those major LNG projects. A few short weeks after he resigned as environment minister, a subsequent Senate Inquiry revealed new Environment Minister Tony Burke signed off on the projects despite the "unambiguous advice" and absence of compulsory environmental impact statements. 

Today, Garrett’s hesitation to approve these Queensland’s CSG projects appears to be well-founded, with both Northern Territory and Victoria, along with other countries, placing bans on CSG fracking. 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so perhaps Australia should give more consideration to pumping copious amounts of CO2 under the seabed into a seismically active whale migration corridor. It may not be the best course of action to risk our pristine aquatic environment just to produce "clean" hydrogen fuel for Japan — nor to believe industry feasibility research as we all did in the case of CSG fracking.

Martin Ferguson and the mining and resources sector’s assurances that CSG fracking wouldn’t harm the environment have proven ill-informed. Those assurances have not proven to be sound advice for Surat and Galilee Basin residents now dealing with the ill-effects of CSG fracking. Perhaps longitudinal studies may be the wisest course of action to show the long-term effects of geosequestration.

Perhaps this should happen before we commit to "brown coal to hydrogen" production — despite the eagerness of politicians and the mining and resources sector to exploit Australia’s vast reserves of brown coal for export-only markets and a mere 400 jobs.

You can follow Belinda Jones on Twitter @belindajones68.

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