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Hydrogen & Renewable Energy Bill

14 November 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (16:51): I rise to speak on the Hydrogen and Renewable Energy Bill on behalf of the Greens. I should note that I am the spokesperson for energy for our party, so I will speak about the implications for energy policy and my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks will address the environmental considerations and the impacts for First Nations communities in her second reading speech.

I also indicate, as was alluded to by the Leader of the Opposition, that contingent on the second reading stage I will move to refer this bill onto a select committee for an inquiry. We believe that is a really important step in ensuring that we have a bill, a reform piece, that actually delivers good environmental outcomes for the people of South Australia.

By way of background, when the Labor Party announced their powering new jobs and industry for the future plan, their green hydrogen plan, in the lead-up to the last election, my response at the time—on behalf of the Greens—was to indicate that we were supportive in principle of the concept. Indeed, that has always been our view, but we wanted to see the detail of the legislation and to understand, to make sure, that the government had the energy mix right.

It was with that intention that I reached out to the government on several occasions to seek to understand what they were proposing, even before legislation was brought to the parliament, so that the Greens could be in a position to work constructively with the Malinauskas government and to get a reform piece through this chamber. It is why on 8 June I reached out to the minister directly and requested a meeting with him to discuss the plan.

My office then reached out again on 14 June via email, again on 7 August, again on 21 August, again on 23 August, and then, when we finally got a briefing with staffers, I reiterated on 20 October that I wanted to meet with the minister to discuss the plan. We finally got an audience with the minister last week and I expressed some of the concerns that the Greens had, and we have never received a response to those concerns.

So it is clear that we are a long way off being able to support this legislation. It does not mean that we are opposed to it, but it does mean that we need to apply some rigour, some scrutiny to the government's proposal to ensure that it does not have adverse consequences for our environment, and to ensure that it actually sets our state on the right path in terms of renewables.

For us, there are some significant concerns that we have with the legislation. I will talk you through those. To begin with, I think it is really important that this chamber understands the distinction between green and blue hydrogen. There is indeed a cross-section of hydrogen colours: pink hydrogen, which comes from nuclear sources, or brown hydrogen, which comes from coal. Green hydrogen—that is the form the Labor Party campaigned on in the lead-up to the last election—is derived from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power and it is made through a process called electrolysis. It is this that the Labor Party allude to in its election manifesto, where the then Labor leader stated in his foreword:

A Malinauskas government will build a 250 megawatt of hydrogen electrolysers, one of the world's largest hydrogen electrolyser facilities.

That is a bit of a tongue twister. It continues:

These electrolysers will create hydrogen from water using green power.

It is this proposition that holds immense promise in the transition away from fossil fuels, particularly in terms of its industrial use, as in the production of green steel in Whyalla. The Greens are attracted to that. I have some knowledge of that issue from when I was involved in a Senate inquiry during my time in federal parliament. I am attracted to that proposition.

Creating a green hydrogen industry in South Australia can accelerate our transition to a sustainable future. The Greens are deeply committed to environmental sustainability and climate action, and we have stated publicly that we are supportive of green hydrogen in terms of reducing our reliance on methane gas in industrial settings. There is the potential for Australia to become a renewable superpower if we focus on green hydrogen and start to build an industry around it.

Certainly, green hydrogen aligns with our goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting clean energy and building a greener and healthier future for the community. But there is an important distinction that needs to be drawn between that and blue hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is the cuckoo in the nest of the Labor Party's proposal because it was not part of what they took to the people of South Australia at the last election, but it is part of the proposal for which they are seeking this parliament's support now.

It is really important that this parliament is cognisant of the risks associated with blue hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is produced from methane gas. It is referred to as natural gas, but we know of course that it is not natural in terms of its impact on the environment. The process reforms methane gas to hydrogen, with the carbon waste product being sequestered into the cavity created from extracting the methane gas.

To be clear, it is gas, it is blue hydrogen made out of fossil fuels. It should hardly be surprising then to anybody that the Greens are concerned about blue hydrogen as it locks us into a future reliance on fossil fuels. Furthermore, carbon capture storage could have detrimental environmental impacts, and that is an area of significant concern for us.

On 12 August 2021, The Guardian reported a study, which found that the emissions from producing blue hydrogen are significantly high. Rupert Howarth, a scientist from Cornell University, who authored the paper said:

It's pretty striking, I was surprised by the results. Blue hydrogen is a nice marketing term that the oil and gas industry is keen to push, but it's far from carbon free. I don't think we should be spending our funds this way on these sorts of false solutions.

The Labor Party talks a lot about this being the next gold rush. We want to make sure they are not going after fool's gold, that they are not going to be spending a huge amount of taxpayer money in propping up the gas industry and in doing something that will not actually deliver demonstrable environmental outcomes.

There is no need for blue hydrogen in our state. We have abundant renewable energy resources. Renewable energy is currently meeting approximately 70 per cent of South Australia's total electricity consumption. Green hydrogen can play a role in stabilising the network and reducing industrial reliance on methane gas. However, we do not need to turn to hydrogen produced from fossil fuels to do that.

Over the last six years, South Australian energy ministers have been talking up hydrogen, and as early as 2017 the Weatherill government was touting hydrogen as a key part of its energy plan, particularly for energy storage. Since then the rhetoric has always been around green hydrogen. The Marshall government described hydrogen development as a greenhouse gas free fuel.

In the 2022 election, the Labor Party's policy document, titled the 'Hydrogen jobs plan', committed to building green hydrogen infrastructure. Nowhere in that document is there any reference to any type of hydrogen other than green hydrogen. It was not until late 2022, when the Malinauskas government first started talking about blue hydrogen in their issues paper, that this appeared. Since then, the government has referred to blue hydrogen in 'South Australia's Green Paper on the energy transition', where it states:

As we transition to a net-zero emissions future, the oil and gas industry will continue to play a critical role for South Australia—particularly in the short-to-medium term.

There was a map contained in Labor's election policy, and I will seek leave to table that document.

Leave granted.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: The map that was in the election policy document shows the potential for green hydrogen was reproduced in the green paper. However, this time the map identified locations for blue hydrogen in Leigh Creek, Cooper Basin and the Greater Adelaide region. I seek leave to table this document, 'South Australia's Green Paper on the energy transition'.

Leave granted.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: The federal energy minister, the Hon. Chris Bowen MP, stated his intentions to support green hydrogen. To quote from the minister in federal parliament, he said, 'The road to green hydrogen does not necessarily go through blue hydrogen.' This is in contrast to the state government's position, where it states:

Blue hydrogen is a potential route for large scale hydrogen production for domestic use or export that is cost competitive using currently available technologies.

There is a clear discrepancy between the positioning of the federal Labor Party and the positioning of Malinauskas Labor here.

We welcome the regulation of the renewable energy industry in South Australia. However, the Greens do not see blue hydrogen as the way forward for our state. We do have sufficient access to wind and sun in South Australia, and we should limit technology to green hydrogen to ensure that we have a clean energy future. There is no need to legislate to allow for blue hydrogen when we could be global leaders in clean energy. Taking a strong position to exclude blue hydrogen would show a clear commitment to our state addressing climate change.

We have declared a climate emergency. What you do when you declare a climate emergency? You do not continue with business as usual. You do not continue propping up the gas industry. Instead, you take dramatic action. I am concerned that what the government is doing here is engaging in a greenwashing exercise.

I am concerned that what the government is doing here is gaslighting the people of South Australia into thinking that this plan is something that it is not. That is why my colleague and I are committed to referring this bill on to a committee inquiry so that we can go through the bill and consider its implications in more detail. Should we be unsuccessful in that endeavour, we will be moving a series of amendments. I will leave the Hon. Tammy Franks to outline the nature of the amendments that she will move, but I will speak briefly to those that I am going to be initiating.

In addition to amendments to remove blue hydrogen from the bill, we will also move to ensure that gas cannot be used for residential purposes. Members will know I have talked a lot about this over the time that I have been in this parliament. It is concerning to us in the Greens that, in contrast to other states and other jurisdictions, South Australia under this government has no plan to move away from gas. Indeed, this is an issue that I have raised with the government. Whenever the minister cares to pick up the phone and take one of my calls, I would make him aware of that, because we are concerned about the fact that South Australia is at risk of becoming the odd man out when it comes to reliance on gas.

Why is it that Victoria has a plan to move away from gas on residential properties, the ACT has a plan to move away from gas on residential properties, but in South Australia there is no such plan, and that is absent in this bill. There is a risk that this bill commits South Australian households to a reliance on gas in the long term, which is totally the opposite to what the Greens have been seeking to achieve. Indeed, it is diametrically opposed to what I had expected the Labor Party would put forward.

The government has also stated their intention to blend hydrogen with methane gas and pump this into homes. While this has been tried in other countries, South Australia's renewable energy abundance means that we are in a better position to electrify our residential energy needs, rather than maintain a residential gas network into the future.

This discussion around hydrogen blend through gas pipelines really requires further explanation because it is a pipedream. It does not deliver environmental outcomes. Indeed, the best that one can hope for, I am advised, is about a 20 per cent hydrogen blend that has negligible environmental impacts. Why on earth would we be spending huge amounts of taxpayer money to potentially deliver hydrogen blend technology to households when we could be ramping up renewables and we could be spending government money on alternatives to gas?

Another concern we have with the bill as it currently stands is that those who are granted a special enterprise licence can be made exempt from any other part of this act at the discretion of the minister. This is an extraordinary power that the Greens are not comfortable with. The submission dated 23 June 2023 from the Law Society highlights their concerns. I quote from that document:

Finally, and of most concern, is the Minister's ability in proposed section 23 to exempt a special enterprise licence from compliance with a provision of the proposed Act. The Society opposes this provision which grates uneasily against the Rule of Law and may give rise to circumstances where a landowner is not given notice and is therefore unable to challenge any decision made.

This is a serious matter that the Law Society have raised, and the Greens share their concern about giving the minister this excessive power.

The final amendment I will move is to ensure that owners of adjoining properties will also need to be notified in accordance with the notice of entry provisions that exist under section 76. The Law Society's submission touches on this point and addresses the rights of adjoining landowners whose neighbouring properties may be impacted by proposed developments. Their submission states:

As a minimum, provision should be made for those adjoining landowners to be notified and consulted. For example, in respect of a windfarm, it is easy to contemplate a proposal where individual towers are placed on the boundary of land far from the owner's dwelling or habitable areas, but directly adjacent to their neighbour's dwelling or habitable area.

Communities can be divided over issues like this, especially in regional areas. The Greens believe that ensuring neighbours are notified is a simple measure that would open up channels of communication and ensure people in the vicinity of a new hydrogen or renewable energy facility are given this information. We want renewable energy to be viewed positively in the community, and a key way to do that is to build community consensus and ensure that people are kept in the loop about what is happening in their neighbourhood.

To be very clear, the Greens are committed to renewable energy. We are committed to ending the reliance on gas across the country. We are supportive of the role of green hydrogen; however, we are concerned about this bill's capacity to fast-track blue hydrogen production. It is vital for us that the future of our planet is protected and that we do not see more fossil fuel projects.

The Greens have been open-minded on this plan. As I indicated in my opening remarks, we were open-minded when the Labor Party announced it during the election. Indeed, I made it very clear that my party was supportive of this proposal in principle, and it is for that reason that we reached out to the minister responsible on 8 June, 14 June, 7 August, 21 August and 23 August and I indicated that I wanted another meeting on 20 October. We have tried to reach out to the government and to work with them on this.

The reality is that they have not been willing to do so. I do not know why, but we now find ourselves in a position where we are not able to support the bill in its current form and where we will be moving to refer it to an inquiry so all the issues that have been raised with us by stakeholders can be ventilated. I hope the parliament will support this sensible proposal from the Greens.

We cannot allow the Malinauskas government to continue to steamroll this chamber to push ahead with significant reforms like this without appropriate parliamentary scrutiny and we cannot allow them through sleight of hand to potentially gaslight the people of South Australia to embark on what could be a smoke and mirrors campaign for a continuation of the gas industry.