Glencore tussles with farmers in Australian court over carbon storage plan

A computer image of Glencore’s carbon capture and storage project in Australia. Credit: Glencore

Australian farmers are taking mining giant Glencore (LSE: GLEN) to federal court to block a carbon capture and storage plan they say will pollute an underground water reservoir a fifth the size of the country.

Glencore says its injection plan from a coal power plant is food-grade carbon dioxide, similar to that found in soft drinks, to depths of more than 2.3 km. The Swiss company’s plan already has approval in a 2022 government decision and the backing of independent research groups.

Queensland-based group AgForce contends its thousands of members can’t afford damage to a reservoir they depend on for watering cattle and crops. It filed papers in a Brisbane federal court on Thursday. The case, which may be heard in August, could be AgForce’s final attempt after previous disappointment at the state level, organizers said.

“We as farmers and agriculturalists know and understand the immense value of water,” AgForce president Georgie Somerset said in a release. “That’s why we can’t understand why anyone would propose to put that at risk – and our food security along with it.”

The case, which pits environmentalists against a plan to fight climate change, may create interest for projects as far away as Canada and the United States. Carbon injections have been a part of the oil and gas industry for decades and mining companies are searching for ways to reduce emissions. Alberta and Texas, home to the fossil fuel industry and burgeoning areas for lithium operations that may reinject brine, also have huge agribusiness sectors.

Coal plant

The carbon from a Glencore coal plant in Queensland is to be liquefied. Initially it will be 330,000 litres before the program increases. The groundwater at the site is already unsuitable to drink because of fluoride levels, the company said.

“The aquifer we’ve identified contains non-potable water with fluoride levels six times above the safe drinking level and is not used by any agricultural producer within a 50-km radius,” Glencore says in talking points about the process. “Our project has been reviewed by expert third-party institutions,” it said, “who concluded that the impacts would be local and minor.”

The groups include Australia’s Government Independent Expert Scientific Committee, the Office of Groundwater Impact Assessment and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, a government scientific research agency. The project’s Environmental Impact Statement is available here.

Glencore has said it wants to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for its industrial assets by a quarter by the end of 2030. Its company, Carbon Transport & Storage, heads the efforts in Queensland.

Freshwater resource

The Great Artesian Basin, where the carbon would be pumped, ranges mostly over Queensland and Northern Territory in north central Australia. It’s one of the largest underground freshwater resources in the world, according to the Queensland Farmers’ Federation. The reservoir generates about A$13 billion in value annually to the national economy and is vital for 180,000 people, 7,600 businesses and 120 towns.

“The absence of state and federal policy on this matter is appalling,” federation CEO Jo Sheppard said in the AgForce release. “Both levels of government need to respond to the unified concerns of community and industry to act immediately.”

The farmers say there is scientific evidence that carbon dioxide reacts with underground rock, releasing stored toxins including arsenic and lead that make it unsafe.

Glencore says that’s misleading. The mobilization of trace metals already contained in the geology due to carbon dioxide storage is minor and localized, which is described in the project’s environmental impact statement, it said.