/ 16 March 2022

Government, Eskom taken to court over Richards Bay gas power plan

Richards Bay industrial landscape

A landmark legal battle will get under way at the high court in Pretoria later this year when two environmental groups take on Eskom and the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment over a gas-to-power plant in Richards Bay.

The application by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and groundWork marks the first legal challenge of an environmental authorisation of a gas plant in the country. The matter is set to be heard on 2 and 3 August.

Last April, they filed review papers challenging the department’s December 2019 authorisation to Eskom to go ahead with construction of the 3000 megawatt Richards Bay Combined Cycle Power Plant (CCPP) in the Richards Bay Industrial Development Zone.

The applicants approached the high court after Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy refused their appeal against the decision in October 2020. They are being represented by Cullinan and Associates and Natural Justice.

Inadequate assessments

The applicants argue that the total life-cycle greenhouse gas and methane emissions from the proposed power plant should have been properly assessed. They say the latest science on gas suggests that the greenhouse gas footprint of gas “is worse than that of either coal or oil, particularly when considered in the 20-year timescale most relevant to our climate future”.

The groups cite how the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and independent auditing firm Meridian have shown in a modelling study that, under a least-cost scenario, a combined cycle power plant mid-merit gas plant, such as the proposed Richards Bay one, is not necessary for at least another 15 years, if at all, to meet South Africa’s energy demands. Until then alternatives are available to meet reliability needs during limited hours of peak electricity demand.

In his founding affidavit, South Durban Community Environmental Alliance coordinator Desmond D’Sa said the source of the gas had not been determined: “Neither the [Richards Bay gas] terminal nor the pipeline have yet been built, and both are subject to separate environmental assessments. 

“Where and how the gas is extracted, transported and stored will materially affect the volume of associated methane emissions and the extent to which the operation of the power plant would contribute to exacerbating global warming and climate change,” he added.

Fatal flaws

According to D’Sa, the failure to consider the location of the gas sources to be used by the power plant renders the need and desirability assessment fatally flawed.

“Whether the gas to be used is obtained via conventional extraction in Mozambique or from hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo will have a material impact on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the extraction,” he said.

“If the intention is to obtain gas from Mozambique those gas reserves are located in the Cabo Delgado province … subject of a widely reported armed insurgency. This is likely to have a material impact on the availability of any gas reserves in this region.”

He noted how several gas-related projects are proposed or have been authorised for the vicinity of Richard’s Bay including a 2100MW combined cycle gas turbine plant by Canopus Energy; a 2 800MW Nseleni liquid gas project by Anchor Energy; and a proposed gas-to-electricity powership for which Karpowership SA sought authorisation in October 2020.  

“The final environmental impact assessment report gives no consideration to these projects, the impacs they will have on the environment or cumulative effect of those impacts with each other and the impacts of the power plant,” D’Sa added.

Gas far less polluting, says Eskom

The department did not respond to queries from the Mail & Guardian.

Eskom said it would  be filing a responding affidavit. “The parties’ legal representatives had a case management meeting with the deputy judge president on 7 March. It was agreed that the respondents will file their responding affidavits on 6 May. The matter is set down to be heard on 2 and 3 August 2022,” the utility said.

The parastatal previously told the M&G that it was committed to a low-carbon, sustainable electricity supply future: “We see this future being enabled by a just transition from coal to technologies such as renewables. This transition will be carried out over time and in a phased manner to ensure we do not compromise the socio-economic development of our country.”

It said a ramping down of coal and ramping up of renewables required enabling technologies such as battery storage and natural gas to support the intermittency of renewables and the grid requirements to support such a system.

“New exciting technologies such as green hydrogen for electricity storage purposes are at least a decade away, which necessitates interim solutions such as natural gas,” Eskom said.

The utility says natural gas is far less polluting from an air quality and carbon perspective compared to coal and uses significantly less water: “We must be responsible and pragmatic in our approach to the transition. The Richards Bay project is an important milestone to enable us to transition away from coal and to a renewables future.”

Gas ‘not clean, nor green’

But Avena Jacklin, of groundWork, said Eskom’s “obsession with exporting before meeting the needs of the country was worrisome, as was its promotion of gas as a transition fuel, which would lock South Africa into gas for longer than necessary. 

“Gas is by no means clean or green and growing evidence is showing that it is in fact more detrimental than coal to the climate crisis. Eskom also needs to address its violation of community’s rights to free, prior and informed consent as communities are not properly informed and part of the decision making process.”