Massive ‘laughing gas’ leak is no joke for Qld chemical company

A well-known Australian chemical company accidentally released more than 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when equipment failed at a Central Queensland plant.

May 12, 2020, updated May 12, 2020
Incitec Pivot's Moranbah plant. (Photo: supplied image)

Incitec Pivot's Moranbah plant. (Photo: supplied image)

About 1000 tonnes of nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas with 300 times the potency of C02 — escaped from the plant at Moranbah.

Incitec Pivot Limited said a maintenance issue reduced the efficiency of its greenhouse gas abatement unit at its Dyno Nobel plant, which produces ammonium nitrate for explosives used in the mining and resources industries.

IPL did not confirm how much nitrous oxide, commonly known as “laughing gas” had been released.

But in a Carbon Disclosure Report released in 2019, it said its emissions increased by the equivalent of 309,023 tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2017-18 due to an equipment failure.

Analysis by the Australian Conservation Foundation showed this increased the company’s total global greenhouse gas emissions by 10 per cent that year.

The foundation’s Australian Conservation Foundation’s Program Manager for Climate and Energy, Gavan McFadzean, says nitrous oxide is particularly potent.

“Nitrous oxide is about 300 times more carbon polluting — it’s worse for the environment, worse for the climate than even carbon dioxide,” he said.

“It’s extremely concerning that such a large amount of this gas has found its way into the atmosphere.”

Company says $5.8m has been spent on repairs

In a statement, the company did not specify the time period or duration of the release.

“The 2018 maintenance issue affected the efficiency of the nitrous oxide (N20) abatement unit at the plant which resulted in less N20 being abated per tonne of product,” the statement said.

“We invested $5.8m in repairs and resolved the maintenance issue to correct the problem.”

The company also offered its reassurance to locals.

“Moranbah residents can be assured that we measure, monitor and abate both gases [nitrous oxide and nitrogen dioxide] to maintain air quality,” the company said.

“Incitec Pivot is committed to transparent reporting across a range of areas, including how we care for the environment and our communities.”

Emissions loopholes

The Federal Government’s Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources declined to answer whether it was aware of the incident, or what ramifications the company would face.

Under the Emissions Reduction Fund, large companies that exceed their emission limits have a number of options, including operating within a multi-year monitoring period to allow additional time to average-out increased emissions.

Incitec Pivot said it was operating under this arrangement and purchasing Australian Carbon Credit Units to compensate.

It said the full cost of the credits would not be known until the end of the multi-year liability period, ending in June 2021

The policy has been the subject of contention, with environmental groups arguing that it gives companies the green light to exceed emissions and avoid repercussions.

“One of the Federal Government’s most important climate policies is ineffective and contains large loopholes so we’re not getting our emissions down,” McFadzean said.

“It’s absolutely essential that we get our carbon emissions down, so what we’re asking for the Federal Government to do is strengthen and properly enforce the climate policies that it does have.

“This wasn’t a small release, it was a very large release, it was 10 per cent of this company’s allowable emissions over a whole year.”

– ABC / Angel Parsons

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