Absurd and dirty new brown hydrogen project has no place in Victoria

 A massive new fossil fuel project planned in Victoria, to supply energy for Japan, has flown largely under the radar. If the project proceeds, it will create around 3 million tonnes of new CO2e emissions per annum, according to estimates by The Australia Institute. This is the equivalent of 735,000 new petrol cars on our roads.

 The Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project plans to use coal gasification to create the hydrogen from coal supplied by AGL in the Latrobe Valley. The project provides a new potential for coal to be burned many years longer than planned. 

 Spin doctors are busy selling hydrogen as ‘clean energy’, but this is only the case if the manufacturing process is emissions-free, using renewable energy to create hydrogen. However, this not what HESC has planned with their coal-to-hydrogen project.

 In fact, hydrogen from coal is more emissions intensive than burning coal for electricity; so potential emissions would be higher than just letting the current coal power stations continue on. If this project proceeds, it will make it impossible for Victoria to meet its emissions targets reductions of 75-80% by 2035 and net zero by 2045. 

 Moreover, the project will endanger Western Port Bay, a Ramsar-listed wetland of international significance and the only UN Biosphere in southern Australia. 

 Gippsland Trades and Labour Council secretary Steve Dodd welcomes HESC as “good news for jobs and good news for the future of the [Latrobe] Valley”.

We say while HESC may create some new jobs, they would mostly be during the construction phase. Overall, the project is very bad news for our environment and our planet.  The project has enormous environmental impacts at every stage of the ‘supply chain’ from the Latrobe Valley to Kobe in Japan.

 After it is produced as a gas in the Latrobe Valley, the hydrogen would be transported via a newly constructed 150 km hydrogen pipeline, carved out of the Latrobe Valley, to a site in the internationally significant Western Port Bay at Hastings. The pipeline would pass through valuable food growing regions and wetlands, between Loy Yang in the La Trobe valley, and Western Port Bay, with the potential to cause significant environmental harm. 

 Hydrogen would be liquified and stored at minus 250 degrees at a massive new Major Hazard Facility, in a cluster of five existing MHFs in the Port of Hastings, before being loaded onto a ship for the 11,000-kilometre journey to Kobe, Japan.  

The liquification and shipping of hydrogen in the Supply Chain would add thousands of tonnes of new emissions to those already created during coal gasification in the Latrobe Valley.

 Increased shipping movements in the Port of Hastings has the potential to introduce major risks for Westernport, including increased turbidity, resulting in Seagrass dieback. Seagrass is a foundation species in Westernport’s marine ecology, providing numerous ecosystem services. It creates protected habitat and nurseries for juvenile fish species, and anchors the seabed. Seagrasses also have the ability to biosequester carbon, removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere to safely store it in the marine environment, . 

As a photosynthesizing plant, it requires good sunlight penetration and is highly sensitive to turbidity and scour from ship wash. Hydrogen is, of course, an extremely volatile substance and the risk of explosion is extreme. International shipping may also introduce foreign invasive species. 

To transport the liquified hydrogen, it is frozen to minus 250 degrees and then loaded onto a ship. The Japanese had to build the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier, the Suiso Frontier. This ship was launched with great fanfare in 2021. In Oct 2023 it was spotted again making a top-secret return visit to the port of Hastings.  Larger tankers would be required to ship hydrogen if the commercial proceeds.

The three main partners behind HESC are Kawasaki, Sumitomo and J-Power, all large Japanese companies. About half a billion dollars has already been invested in the HESC. The Victorian and Federal governments have also made substantial investments, but it is not clear exactly how much of taxpayers’ money has been spent. 

 What is clear, however, is that the pilot project in 2022 was a failure. It was expected to produce three tonnes of liquified hydrogen, but this amount could not be extracted from the coal. Extra hydrogen had to be bought commercially. And then the ship carrying the liquified hydrogen caught fire in Hastings. If the hydrogen had exploded, a distinct possibility, it would have been catastrophic for Western Port. 

Despite the disastrous pilot project, the Japanese consortium and their partners continue to push ahead. They are putting pressure on the Victorian government to approve full-scale production. To coincide with the Japan Australia Business conference, Labor MPs, including Victorian treasurer, Tim Pallas and Federal Minister for Resources, Madeleine King, together with some local councillors were given a tour of the Suiso Frontier during its recent return visit to the Hastings. 

When the hydrogen reaches Japan, it will be re-branded as ‘clean energy’, despite the fact that it was produced by burning brown coal, the dirtiest of coals. The consortium is pinning its hopes on carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to miraculously turn this dirty brown hydrogen project into a ‘clean energy source’.  

Yet CCS has never worked at large scale anywhere in the world and nowhere in coal gasification.

According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis close to 90 per cent of the proposed global carbon capture capacity in the power sector has failed at the implementation stage or was suspended early. 

 The consortium is relying on CarbonNet, another huge government-funded initiative to provide the CCS technology. But that project has little to show for the $1 billion so far invested. 

 The facts remain that HESC involves new coal mining, will demand significant water requirements, and will produce large quantities of waste, sludge and massive new emissions. HESC will keep the dirty brown coal industry alive for decades, well past its use by date. 

 Once again, it is up to those of us in the community who care about our environment and the climate emergency to fight this absurd and dangerous project from going ahead. Our parliamentary petition has already forced a debate in the Victorian Legislative Council planned for 15 November. Many community groups have shown their opposition to this project by endorsing Save Westernport’s new video. 

 Neither our Federal nor Victorian Labor government has a political, economic or environmental licence for this project. The community expects our governments to stand by their climate change policies and not their fossil fuel mates!