Eskom’s Richards Bay gas-to-power plant ‘regressive’ for action on climate change, say activists

Two environmental justice organisations have hauled the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment to the high court in Pretoria in landmark litigation challenging the environmental authorisation for Eskom’s gas-to-power plant in Richards Bay.

groundWork and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) argue that building the 3 000 megawatt combined cycle power plant commits South Africa to a “regressive, climate harming future”. 

They have approached the court to review the rejection of their appeal by forestry, fisheries and environment Minister Barbara Creecy against the authorisation for Eskom’s project in the Richards Bay industrial development zone.

The appellants are being represented by environmental law specialists Cullinan and Associates and supported by Natural Justice

“This litigation is important because gas, as an alternative energy source to coal, is not the answer to solve South Africa’s electricity crisis,” Sherelee Odayar, the oil, gas and energy project officer for the SDCEA, told the Mail & Guardian. “It’s costly and South Africans cannot afford this.”

Gas, Odayar said, is a fossil fuel and a contributor to climate change, “therefore investing in gas infrastructure will only worsen our climate crisis, rather than solve it”.

Both Eskom and the department did not respond to the M&G’s requests for comment, but the appellants said that Creecy and Sabelo Malaza, the department’s chief director of integrated environmental authorisations, have indicated their intention to oppose. 

In documents for the public participation process of the environmental impact assessment, Eskom said the project’s purpose is to reduce transmission losses from generation facilities supplying KwaZulu-Natal, by having a generation centre in the province, and that the project was planned to help the power utility reduce its carbon footprint through the use of natural gas.

The opponents of the project said the gas-to-power plant will be “fuelled by dirty gas, a potent fossil fuel” through a gas pipeline that will be installed at Richards Bay Port.

In their appeal papers the organisations describe how, since the project’s environmental review was completed more than five years ago, the circumstances and context have changed. “First, there is now clear legal precedent that the applicant must assess the full climate change impacts of the project. This legal mandate is essential because, in the last five years, the need to curtail the climate crisis has become more urgent, including the need to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the Earthlife Africa case handed down in 2017, the high court considered how the environmental impacts with regard to climate change should be assessed. This precedent was not considered in Eskom’s Richards Bay project, the groups argue.

The life-cycle greenhouse gas and methane emissions from the plant should have been properly assessed, because “evidence now clearly shows that methane leaks during the full life-cycle of gas production, transport, and consumption make gas as harmful as coal”, the organisations said. 

Creecy’s position, that gas is cleaner than coal, is “misleading and dangerous”. The organisations said urgent action is needed to reduce the contribution of emissions into the atmosphere and the government is far behind on its international commitments. 

They said the plant is not necessary to meet South Africa’s energy needs because cleaner, more cost-efficient alternatives are available. “Advancements in renewable energy technology have been staggering, and the cost of such technology has dramatically reduced in the past five years. This creates a much greater risk that the project could become a stranded asset because the operation of gas plants is already — and will, in the next decade, be even more — expensive compared to renewable energy options.”

The appellants said the environmental impact report excluded an assessment of whether renewable energy power sources could provide reliable energy “instead of a massive gas plant”.

Since the environmental impact assessment was completed, several other major projects have been proposed in the Richards Bay zone, including large-scale gas-to-power plants. 

“The 2020 impact statements do not consider these projects, the impacts they will have on the environment or cumulative effect of those impacts with each other and the impacts of the project, such as on the health of nearby communities and greenhouse gas emission levels,” the organisations said.

They argued that research has shown that a mid-merit gas plant such as the proposed Richards Bay plant is not necessary for at least another 15 years, if at all, to meet South Africa’s energy demands. “Until then, diesel can continue to be used by existing generators to meet reliability needs during limited hours of peak electricity demand. This least-cost pathway avoids building expensive gas infrastructure unless and until the need arises and is economically justified, avoiding locking South Africa into long-term fuel cost commitments prematurely.”  

Avena Jacklin, the climate and energy campaigner at groundWork, said in a statement that fossil fuel emissions need to be reduced to zero as soon as possible because the time left to prevent runaway climate change “could have already shrunk to zero”.

Cut methane emissions this decade – UN

Methane emissions can be slashed by up to 45% this decade, avoiding nearly 0.3°C of global warming by 2045 and consistent with keeping the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5˚C within reach, according to a Global Methane Assessment by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the United Nations Environment Programme.

As methane is a key ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone (smog), a powerful climate forcer and dangerous air pollutant, a 45% reduction would prevent 260 000 premature deaths, 775 000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat, and 25 million tonnes of crop losses annually, the assessment states.

Most methane emissions originate in three sectors: fossil fuels, waste and agriculture. 

These are increasing faster than any time since recordkeeping began in the 1980s. 

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, responsible for about 30% of warming since pre-industrial times. 

utHowever, unlike carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane starts breaking down quickly, with most of it gone after a decade. 

In the fossil fuel sector, oil and gas extraction, processing and distribution account for 23% of emissions and coal mining accounts for 12% of emissions. In the waste sector, landfills and waste water make up about 20% of emissions. In the agricultural sector, livestock emissions from manure and enteric fermentation represent roughly 32%, and rice cultivation is responsible for 8% of emissions.

The assessment identifies measures that specifically target methane. Most are in the fossil fuel sector and the authors say it is relatively easy to locate and fix methane leaks and reduce venting. The mitigation potential varies between countries and regions. For Africa it is from livestock followed by oil and gas.

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