Gorgon's carbon venting bonanza gets more 'embarrassing' in new twist
Summary: Chevron never intended to honour a condition that it inject carbon emissions underground at its Gorgon project, and a new application for the injection facility's operating licence – made 2½ years after production started – is proof, Western Australia's peak conservation body says.....
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Approval for the LNG plant at Barrow Island off Western Australia’s Pilbara coast was given on condition Chevron inject its carbon emissions into deep aquifers underground.
Chevron’s failure to get the system working, despite the project consuming $60 million in federal funding, means Gorgon has by now emitted an additional 12.5 million tonnes of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere, according to the company’s annual emissions estimate.
This will have reached 17.5 million tonnes by the second quarter of 2020, which is when Chevron has said the system will be ready.
In April, WAtoday reported the gases being vented also contained mercury, and BTEX chemicals including benzene, a known carcinogen.
“Despite Chevron’s claims that they have been making best endeavours to get the geosequestration working for almost two years, they had not, until now, taken even the most basic step in seeking an operating license,” Conservation Council of WA director Piers Verstegen said.
“This is not the kind of oversight that a company the size of Chevron with its team of lawyers would make.
“It demonstrates Chevron had no intention to get the plant operating by the required start time, and their previous claims have been baseless because they had not even taken the first step.”
Mr Verstegen said the result would be much longer delays and millions of tonnes of additional pollution from a company that was already WA’s biggest polluter.
“This is the latest sorry chapter in an ongoing delaying exercise by Chevron, aided by a lack of action by the government,” he said.
“According to the conditions, Chevron is required to provide alternative offsets like planting trees or renewable energy if the geosequestration does not work. But instead the state government is continuing to allow this company to string us along.
"It’s not only embarrassing, but it is exposing workers to toxic emissions and costing the state hundreds of jobs for carbon farmers, renewable energy installers and other workers who could be employed right now offsetting Chevron’s pollution.
“It’s time this embarrassing situation is put to an end. Chevron must immediately provide alternative offsets for its massive carbon pollution and stop the release of toxic emissions.
"If it cannot comply with its conditions, the license for the LNG project should be suspended.”
A Chevron spokeswoman said the company was engaging with government on the injection project to support safe and reliable operations.
“The safe delivery of this project is a priority for our business," she said.
She said the injection project was one of the largest greenhouse gas mitigation projects undertaken by industry and would reduce total greenhouse gas emissions from the Gorgon project by around 40 per cent (the injection facility is only designed to capture the "reservoir gas", not all project emissions).
WAtoday's inquiries have confirmed that there was nothing stopping Chevron applying for the licence 2½ years ago.
A Department of Water and Environment spokesman said Environment Minister Stephen Dawson had requested the Environmental Protection Authority inquire into and report on the implementation conditions in regard to the timing of the commencement of the injection system.
"Based on the findings of the inquiry and the Minister’s decision, DWER will assess compliance," he said.
Workers 400 metres away from gas venting
Chevron's environmental approval conditions focused on carbon dioxide and did not mention mercury or BTEX chemicals.
In April, Chevron applied to the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation to ‘flare’ gases further from workers as a stop-gap measure until the injection facility was ready.
DWER’s paperwork noted the “health and safety concerns” that had led to the application to flare the gases, a measure that does not in itself lessen the quantity of mercury being released.
The Gorgon site
A confidential source revealed the majority of the workers on site had been working about 400 metres from where the gases were being vented.
The source said it was only after WAtoday’s April report drew attention to the relevant documents on the DWER website that contractors on site fully understood what was being vented and where.
“There are about 300 guys working in the acid gas removal units about 300-400 metres away [from the venting site],” he said.
He said while Chevron’s own workers were given specialised personal monitoring devices to track mercury and benzene levels, contractors such as mechanical fitters, scaffolders, riggers and electricians were not.
He said following the WAtoday report, Chevron held meetings to address contractors’ concerns and brought a hygienist in to tell them there were no air quality issues.
He said workers were still worried.
“Chevron are just cowboys,” he said. “Oil and gas companies are all pretty much like that but what I could tell from Barrow it was another level. They will keep getting away with whatever they can, until the government regulators actually push them.”
A Chevron spokesman responded that the company was committed to providing a safe environment.
“We have extensive monitoring in place to ensure emissions are within acceptable levels,” he said.
“Over the past four years, more than 1600 air monitoring samples and more than 250 biological samples have been taken at Gorgon. None of the air or biological monitoring results have indicated exposure to mercury or benzene above or approaching Safe Work Australia Occupational Exposure Standards.”
Chevron did not confirm whether the alternative gas burning site was yet operational.
The country’s peak energy union and Doctors for the Environment Australia have also called on the government to suspend the plant’s operating licence until the gas injection system is working.