The company aiming to carry out the project, Fortescue Future Industries, says it would create more than 15,000 direct 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 natural environment and endanger threatened condors.
The situation is fueling the debate on how to achieve a just transition to sustainable energy.
“I understand the need for green hydrogen that the First World may have … There is an expectation of replacing the gas that Russia and others have provided with another type of energy, now and in the future”, Maria Fabiana Vega, indigenous community activist in Rio The black capital, Viedma, told Al Jazeera.
“But I think we all have to think differently, stop the consumption in which we are immersed, so as not to damage other cultures and territories”.
Last November, Australia’s Fortescue announced plans to invest $ 8.4 billion in a green hydrogen project near the city of Sierra Grande in the southern Rio Negro province. It would involve the construction of a huge wind farm, power transmission lines, a hydrogen production plant and port infrastructure.
“Green hydrogen is one of the fuels of the future and we are proud that Argentina is one of the pioneering countries in the ecological transition,” Argentine President Alberto Fernandez said when the project was announced.
But most of the hydrogen produced would likely be exported due to a lack of domestic demand, acknowledged Sebastian Delgui, Fortescue’s regional government and community manager for Latin America.
“Today the main markets that are doing the [energy] the transition are Europe, Japan, Korea and the United States, “he told Al Jazeera, noting that the company predicts the future” development of demand “in Argentina.
Green hydrogen is produced using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can power vehicles, heat homes, and replace natural gas in fertilizer production. It is considered an emission-free source of energy because hydrogen produces water, rather than carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, when it is burned.
In the Rio Negro project, for which the provincial government has allocated some 625,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land, electricity would be generated by a huge wind farm.
“It’s a scale that doesn’t exist in Argentina,” Leonardo Salgado, an environmental activist and professor of paleontology at the Rio Negro National University, told Al Jazeera. “It means using an important part of the province’s area to provide for the countries of the global North.”
The government claims that the land it granted to Fortescue is owned by the state. But the area is home to dozens of indigenous communities, and activists say the project cannot go ahead unless they are consulted and they give consent, in line with the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, that Argentina has ratified.
The country is also conducting a nationwide survey of indigenous communities to protect their rights over their ancestral lands and communities cannot be evicted from disputed areas until the investigation is completed.
But the process has been repeatedly delayed and data from Argentina’s National Institute for Indigenous Affairs shows that several communities in the region have not yet been interviewed.
«As long as the survey of [Indigenous] The community land is not complete, they cannot touch that land, ”Vega said.
Delgui said Fortescue had conducted a social impact study with the local university, was working on an environmental assessment, and had asked the province to consult with community stakeholders.
“We want there to be a preventive consultation, because … we are convinced that local communities must accompany us,” he said. “The project will not go ahead without consultation.”
Condor at risk
In January, Fortescue commissioned the Argentine company IMPSA to provide wind measuring antennas on the Somuncura plateau. The move has triggered alarm bells among biologists, who say building a wind farm there would spell disaster for Andean condors, which are considered an endangered species in Argentina.
Evidence from Europe suggests that condors will likely fly into wind turbines, according to Rayen Estrada Pacheco, a biologist with the condor conservation program of Argentina’s non-profit Bioandean Foundation.
While 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 the installation of wind measuring poles on the plateau pending the provincial government to adapt its management plan for the area. “There isn’t a single tree on the Somuncura Plateau,” Delgui said.
Other aspects of the project have also raised concerns among environmentalists. The water used in the electrolysis process would be taken from the sea, to preserve the precious fresh water reserves of the Rio Negro. But that would require the construction of a desalination plant, and in order to be transported, hydrogen is often converted into ammonia, which can be harmful to humans and the environment if not managed properly.
Daniel Sanguinetti, Rio Negro’s secretary of state for planning, told Al Jazeera that an environmental impact study on possible risks is underway. The government worked with community leaders to develop protocols for the project’s implementation, including time for public debate, he added.
As for the condors, “we have to preserve those 64 birds that have been released so far [in efforts to restore their population in this area]and we must also support the planet, and also generate economic activity for the province’s 750,000 inhabitants, ”Sanguinetti said.
However, Estrada Pacheco fears that the project could put decades of work at risk: “It was a huge effort for many people and many institutions… for the return of the condor. Thinking that a company could settle there, for a project to produce green hydrogen that will not even stay in the country, is very frustrating “.