The remote steppes of Argentina’s Rio Negro province are home to a rich, biodiverse ecosystem that for millennia has been disturbed only by the strong Patagonian winds. Now, these windswept plains could become the site of a massive new green hydrogen project.
The company aiming to build 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, harm the natural environment and endanger threatened condors.
The situation is fuelling debate over how to achieve a just transition towards sustainable energy.
“I understand the need for green hydrogen that the First World might have … There’s an expectation of replacing the gas that Russia and others provided with another kind of energy, now and in the future,” Maria Fabiana Vega, an Indigenous community activist in Rio Negro’s capital, Viedma, told Al Jazeera.
“But I think we all have to think in a different way, stop the consumption we’re immersed in, so we don’t harm other cultures and territories.”
Last November, Australia’s Fortescue announced plans to invest $8.4bn in a green hydrogen project near the town of Sierra Grande, in the south of Rio Negro province. It would involve constructing a huge wind park, power transmission lines, a hydrogen production plant and port infrastructure.
“Green hydrogen is one of the fuels of the future and it fills us with pride that Argentina is one of the countries that’s at the vanguard of the ecological transition,” Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez said when the project was announced.
But most of the hydrogen produced would probably be exported due to a lack of demand domestically, acknowledged Sebastian Delgui, Fortescue’s regional manager of government and communities for Latin America.
“Today, the main markets that are making the [energy] transition are Europe, Japan, Korea and the US,” he told Al Jazeera, noting the company foresees the future “development of demand” within Argentina.
Green hydrogen is produced by using renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can power vehicles, heat homes and replace natural gas in fertilizer production. It is considered an emissions-free energy source because hydrogen produces water, rather than the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, when burned.
In the Rio Negro project, for which the provincial government has allocated around 625,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of land, electricity would be generated by an enormous wind farm.
“It’s a scale that doesn’t exist in Argentina,” Leonardo Salgado, an environmental activist and paleontology professor at the National University of Rio Negro, told Al Jazeera. “It means using an important part of the area of the province to provide for countries in the Global North.”
The government says the land it has granted to Fortescue is owned by the state. But the area is home to dozens of Indigenous communities, and campaigners say the project cannot go ahead unless they are consulted and give consent, in line with the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which Argentina has ratified.
(Source: Aljazeera, Sept. 12-2022)