Asian Renewable Energy Hub plan for WA rejected by federal government on environmental grounds

Proponents of the world’s largest renewable energy project are facing a significant hurdle, with the federal Environment Minister rejecting plans for a WA hub.

The federal government-backed plans for the Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) in the Pilbara last year, granting the venture major project status.

However, new environmental approvals were needed after the group of companies behind the project — the AREH consortium — amended its plans, opting to renewably produce ammonia for export to Asia, rather than electricity.

The plans included clearing land for wind and solar infrastructure, developing pipelines to transport ammonia, and building a new town between Broome and Port Hedland to house workers.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley last week refused to sign off on the new proposal.

“The Minister concluded that the proposal would have unacceptable impacts on matters of national environmental significance,” a ministerial spokesperson said.

According to the spokesperson, the ‘unacceptable impacts’ were to do with wetlands near Eighty-mile Beach, which are listed as an important site under the Ramsar agreement.

The Minister found the developments would be a risk to threatened bird species that live at the wetlands, and also raised concerns about tides.

“The Minister found the marine component of the infrastructure corridor would disrupt tidal movement and processes, and this would seriously impact the habitats and life-cycle of the native species dependent on the wetland,” the spokesperson said.

Changes underway to push ahead with project
In a statement, AREH consortium members said they were working to amend plans so the hub could go ahead.

“We will take [the Minister’s] concerns on board as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,” they said.

“[We] will address fully any concerns in preparing future project referrals.”

State government ‘surprised’
WA’s Minister for Regional Development and the Hydrogen Industry, Alannah MacTiernan, said she was surprised the federal government knocked back AREH’s plans for exporting ammonia made with green hydrogen.

“We’re very surprised at how quickly the decision was met, and it appears that there wasn’t a lot of conversation with the proponent,” Ms MacTiernan said.

Ms MacTiernan said the decision raised concerns about the future of Australia’s hydrogen industry.

“We need to be very clear about where the government stands with hydrogen.

“We note that approvals have been possible to obtain for some quite controversial coal projects,” she said.

“Everyone, theoretically, has signed on to the notion that we will be ultimately replacing our natural gas exports with hydrogen exports.

“We’re going to need to work cooperatively to find a way in which this can be done.”

Long-term wins for the environment
Australian National University’s Professor Andrew Blakers, an expert in renewable power and energy systems, said using solar and wind for mining, as per the Asian Renewable Energy Hub plans, would make for a bright energy future.

“I would like to see that all mine sites in the future are run primarily from solar and or wind,” he said.

Professor Blakers said it was important renewable energy projects were carefully placed and built to high environmental standards.

“Firm adherence to guidelines means most of the potential environmental downsides will already have been thought out and ameliorated,” he said.

“Hopefully this particular project can get around the issues it has come across.”