Activists raise red flag over Argentina’s green hydrogen project

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Critics say the construction of the multibillion-dollar plant threatens indigenous peoples’ rights to land and the environment.

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The remote steppes of Argentine’s Rio Negro province are home to a rich biodiverse ecosystem that has been disturbed for millennia only by strong Patagonian winds. Now these windswept plains could be home to a massive new green hydrogen project.

Fortescue Future Industries, seeking to implement the project, says it will create more than 15,000 jobs and put the province at the forefront of Argentina’s energy transition. But local activists say it could violate indigenous land rights, damage the environment and endanger endangered condors.

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The situation is fueling debate about how to achieve a just transition to sustainable energy.

“I understand the need for green hydrogen, which could be in the First World countries… The gas that Russia and other countries supplied with other form of energy is expected to be replaced now and in the future.” — Maria Fabiana Vega, indigenous community activist in Rio de – Janeiro. This was reported to Al Jazeera by the Negro capital Viedma.

“But I think that we all need to think differently, stop the consumption that we are immersed in so as not to harm other cultures and territories.”

Last November, Australian company Fortescue announced plans to invest $8.4 billion in a green hydrogen project near the city of Sierra Grande in the southern province of Rio Negro. This involves the construction of a huge wind farm, power lines, a hydrogen plant and port infrastructure.

“Green hydrogen is one of the fuels of the future and we are proud that Argentina is one of the countries at the forefront of the ecological transition,” Argentine President Alberto Fernandez said when the project was announced.

Unprecedented Scale

But much of the hydrogen produced is likely to be exported due to lack of domestic demand, acknowledged Sebastian Delgui, Fortescue’s area manager for governments and communities in Latin America.

“Today, the main markets that make [energy] the transition is Europe, Japan, Korea and the US,” he told Al Jazeera, noting that the company foresees future “demand development” in Argentina.

Green hydrogen is produced using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can power cars, heat homes, and replace natural gas in fertilizer production. It is considered an emission-free energy source because when hydrogen is burned, water is produced rather than carbon dioxide, which causes the greenhouse effect.

In the Rio Negro project, for which the provincial government has allocated about 625,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land, a huge wind farm will generate electricity.

“This scale does not exist in Argentina,” Leonardo Salgado, an environmental activist and professor of paleontology at the Rio Negro National University, told Al Jazeera. “This means using an important part of the province to provide for the countries of the Global North.”

The government claims that the land it provided to Fortescue belongs to the state. But there are dozens of indigenous communities in the area, and campaigners say the project cannot proceed unless they are consulted and agreed to in accordance with the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of the International Labor Organization, which Argentina ratified.

The country is also conducting a nationwide survey of indigenous communities to protect their rights to their ancestral lands, and communities cannot be evicted from disputed areas until the survey is completed.

But the process has been repeatedly delayed, and data from Argentina’s National Institute of Indigenous Affairs shows that several communities in the region have not yet been surveyed.

“While the examination [Indigenous] the communal land is not ready, they cannot touch this land,” Vega said.

Delgy said Fortescue had done a social impact study with a local university, worked on an environmental assessment and asked the province to consult with community leaders.

“We want preliminary consultations to be held because … we are convinced that the locals should accompany us,” he said. “The project will not move forward without consultation.”

Condors in danger

In January, Fortescue signed a contract with the Argentinean company IMPSA for the supply of wind measurement masts on the Somuncura plateau. The move has sparked alarm among biologists who say building a wind farm there would spell disaster for Andean condors, considered an endangered species in Argentina.

According to Rayen Estrada Pacheco, a biologist with the Argentinean Bioandi Condor Conservation Foundation, a non-profit program, European evidence suggests that condors are more likely to get caught in wind turbines.

Although the company says it will avoid areas where condors nest, Estrada Pacheco told Al Jazeera that the birds “really use the whole environment.”

In July, Fortescue told local media that it would suspend installation of wind measurement masts on the plateau while the provincial government adapts its management plan for the area. “There are no masts on the Somuncur plateau,” said Delgui.

Other aspects of the project have also raised environmental concerns. The water used in the electrolysis process will be taken from the sea to conserve the Rio Negro’s precious fresh water supply. But this will require the construction of a desalination plant, and be transportedhydrogen often turns into ammonia, which can be harmful to humans and the environment if not handled properly.

Daniel Sanguinetti, Rio Negro’s secretary of state for planning, told Al Jazeera that a study was under way on possible environmental risks. He added that the government is working with community leaders to develop protocols for implementing the project, including time for public debate.

As for the condors, “we have to save the 64 birds that have been released so far. [in efforts to restore their population in this area]and we also need to support the planet as well as provide economic activity for the 750,000 people in the province,” Sanguinetti said.

However, Estrada Pacheco worries that the project could jeopardize decades of work: “Many people and many institutions have had to work hard…to get the condor back. To think that a company could be located there for a green hydrogen project that is not even going to stay in the country is very frustrating.”

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