Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones wants it.

But his senior colleague, Environment and Economic Development Minister David Parker, won't take a briefing on it.

Energy Minister Megan Woods, who has talked up the potential for hydrogen to replace oil and gas as a major industry, has been briefed on the 8 Rivers hydrogen plant proposal but won't comment on it.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw is also keen on hydrogen as a transport fuel for heavy trucking, for electricity production and as a potential clean energy export opportunity.

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Finance Minister Grant Robertson is keeping an open mind. If it comes to fruition, 8 Rivers would be the biggest industrial development in New Zealand since the Think Big era, but this time the Government wouldn't be paying for it.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is another fan of New Zealand's "green" hydrogen opportunity and is aware of the proposal, which seeks an initial $10 million to $20m loan from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) to help pay for a $50m feasibility study.

If that proved positive, the project's backers would seek up to $2 billion in private capital to build a zero-carbon emissions plant in Taranaki that would produce industrial quantities of hydrogen, urea for local agricultural use and export, and electricity, along with a swag of other chemicals.

But there's a snag. The 8 Rivers technology uses natural gas – which the Government has burnt huge political capital on putting a premature end to with its unanticipated decision in April to stop issuing future offshore oil and gas exploration permits.

The 8 Rivers plant uses a new technology, called the Allam Cycle, that is attracting serious global capital and appears to have cracked the riddle of affordable carbon capture and storage, but its reliance on a fossil fuel feedstock is making the proposal politically super-sensitive.

Before Jones blurted out its existence in a television interview last weekend, almost no one in New Zealand had heard of 8 Rivers.

At the core of that sensitivity is the need for PGF funding. While David Parker is characterising it as a subsidy grab from a multi-national for a feasibility study, it seems 8 Rivers wants the Government funds for quite another reason: political insurance.

It believes in the project but fears a wasted effort if the Government were to make another unexpected regulatory swerve.

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If there's PGF funding in the mix, they reason, there would be a critical minimum of Government support that would justify investment in exploring the project further.

More than a dozen sources involved in, briefed on, or aware of the project all indicate that key ministers are struggling with the politics of the project, despite its ability to fit the Government's rhetoric about assisting a "just transition to a low-carbon economy".

Stranded

Since Woods is not a PGF funding decision-maker, she is unable to comment, says her office.

As Jones reportedly put it: "We made Megan walk the plank (on the offshore oil and gas exploration ban), and now we can't get her back on the ship."

But at the Asia-Pacific Energy Leaders Summit in Wellington, she said hydrogen was "an emerging energy source that we see huge potential in for New Zealand".

"Green hydrogen could play an important role in New Zealand's energy future by supporting electricity generation during dry weather", enabling "the conversion of New Zealand's heavy vehicle fleet", as well as potential applications in rail, shipping and as an export.

The 8 Rivers project promises all of those outcomes, and a solution to the farming sector's demand for urea, more and more of which is being imported.

That's particularly since existing producer Ballance appears to have abandoned its own plans to build a billion-dollar urea manufacturing plant because of the oil and gas exploration ban.

However, 8 Rivers must first convince politicians that its Allam Cycle technology is in fact "green" technology.

Its use of carbon capture and storage, for example, is already a hurdle for support from James Shaw's Green Investment Fund. While details of the $100m fund are still under wraps, it's understood that CCS projects will be specifically excluded.

Open secret

The sensitivity means almost no one close to the proposal is talking, despite 8 Rivers being almost an open secret in policy and industry circles thanks to the efforts of a small army of merchant bankers, well-connected government relations and PR practitioners, law firms, oil and gas producers and analysts, major industrial gas users, agri-business leaders and civic and Māori leaders in Taranaki.

Fronting the project in New Zealand is Pouakai NZ Group, a company registered on October 15. Its two directors are former NZ Post chief executive Brian Roche and expat Kiwi Cameron Hosie, an employee of North Carolina-based 8 Rivers, which is listed in Companies Office records as Pouakai's sole shareholder.

Chief executive-designate for the project in New Zealand is likely to be Murray Gribben, chief executive at Crown Irrigation.

Government relations assistance is provided by former John Key chief of staff Wayne Eagleson, who now works with Labour-aligned Auckland PR firm Thompson Lewis. David Lewis was a political adviser to former PM Helen Clark, and Gordon Jon (GJ) Thompson briefly took the reins in Ardern's office late last year while chief of staff Mike Munro had surgery.

Assisting with investment banking smarts is Wellington firm Cameron Partners, with Chapman Tripp in harness for legal advice.

Woodward Partners oil and gas analyst John Kidd, a petroleum sector analyst, has given comfort on whether there would be sufficient gas supplies into the future to make 8 Rivers viable.

He appears to believe have concluded the supply is there.

Meanwhile, Jamie Tuuta, a leading Māori business figure with Taranaki iwi connections, has been to Texas to inspect the 50-Megawatt demonstration plant built for 8 Rivers by NET Power, and is said to have seen the opportunity in both economic and tribal settlement terms.

Taranaki civic leaders are naturally keen, having upbraided the Government for what they saw as a hasty, destructive decision on oil and gas, which would hit Taranaki hard.

"8 Rivers is a world-class, clean industrial facility that offers potentially significant employment opportunities for the region," says New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom, who will say no more.

Costly dilemma

A big part of the problem is that ministers would rather see renewable energy as the source for "green hydrogen".

"Due to our abundant renewable energy, New Zealand can produce some of the cleanest green hydrogen in the world, and receive a premium for it in international markets. That's a strategic advantage our Government wants to make the most of," Woods told the Asia-Pacific energy leaders.

However, the electrolysis process for producing hydrogen using renewable energy is anything up to six times more expensive than producing it from natural gas.

The 8 Rivers Allam Cycle process is a potential game-changer because it reinjects carbon dioxide into old oil and gas fields at a commercially viable cost — the biggest hurdle that's faced CCS technology to date.

Having broken cover, Jones is urging 8 Rivers backers to do so: "It's a puzzle to me why the promoters haven't been comfortable to speak about it, but when you want public money, it's not just the role of the Provincial Champion (Jones himself) to promote it."

Climate change lobby group Climate Justice Taranaki climbed into the project on Tuesday, with a statement saying Jones was trying to "wrap a turd in glitter".

It didn't believe CCS could be made to work or be commercially viable and said: "This second round of unsustainable Think Big technology is not proven and even if it was it will be ridiculously expensive and still require fracked gas that is estimated to run out in 10 years' time. Who in their right mind would invest in such a project?"

Jones indicates that a decision on 8 Rivers funding may need to go to a full Cabinet discussion, even though Jones, Parker, Robertson and Transport Minister Phil Twyford have discretion to make PGF decisions below $20m.

"The thing this proposal crystalises is how complex these matters are," says Jones of the challenge of decarbonisation without hollowing out regional economies.

"It ticks some boxes, but it may lay bare some faultlines that the Government will need to discuss."

8 Rivers, the Allam Cycle, and what it all means

In a world full of apparently ground-breaking new technologies being announced on a seemingly daily basis, why take the 8 Rivers project seriously?

Put simply: because global-scale investors looking for low-carbon energy production in a post-oil, post-nuclear energy era are backing it and its successful implementation would reduce total carbon emissions from electricity and urea production – both essential inputs to the New Zealand economy for the foreseeable future.

The Allam Cycle, the core of the 8 Rivers technology, achieves something not seen before. It uses so-called 'super-critical' carbon dioxide to propel the turbines in a gas-fired electricity generation plant, making it highly energy efficient.

This means that it "captures all of the carbon dioxide it produces without significantly higher costs, in part by relying on the greenhouse gas itself to crank the turbine that generates electricity," said American publication Technology Review last August.

"The technology could enable a new generation of plants that provide clean power, without the development risks of nuclear, the geographic restrictions of hydroelectric, or the intermittency issues of solar and wind."

That was three months after NET Power, a Texas-based company, opened a US$140m ($206m) 50 Megawatt demonstration plant using the Allam Cycle technology – named after its inventor, UK academic Rodney Allam.

Earlier this month and three months of testing further on, NET Power was able to announce an investment of undisclosed size from three major global energy and infrastructure firms to develop the technology further.

The first phase of testing at the North Carolina plant had "successfully demonstrated the novel combustor at full scale and the operability of the NET Power process. The last phase of testing ... is expected to completed by early 2019."

Fortune 500 company Occidental Petroleum's Oxy Low Carbon Ventures unit, and nuclear power producer Exelon – both looking for low-carbon options as their current business models disappear – have invested accordingly.

Japanese industrial giant Toshiba wants to manufacture the turbines and multinational US firm McDermott is lining up for plant construction.

In New Zealand, 8 Rivers is touting a three-block approach to the project:

• Block One – a zero-emissions Allam Cycle 175MSW power generation plant using natural gas.

It would power the hydrogen plant, but also provide power to the grid and could act like a fast-starting peaker plant for times when renewables can't meet total electricity demand.

That could help the Government achieve zero-carbon electricity production by 2035 – a goal that will not be reached while maintaining secure supply unless there is still some gas-fired electricity generation in the system.

The 8 Rivers plant could hasten the closure of the Genesis Energy coal-fired power station still running at Huntly and displace other, less carbon-efficient gas-fired plants.

Waste CO2 would be available for other industrial processes or pumped back into depleted oil and gas fields, potentially improving recovery of hydrocarbons as those fields decline;

• Block Two – a hydrogen production system developed by 8 Rivers for integration with the Allam Cycle, which synthesises hydrogen and CO2 feedstocks, capable of producing zero-emissions hydrogen at much lower cost than pure 'green' hydrogen created from renewable sources.

• Block Three – urea production.

New Zealand uses around 900,000 tonnes of urea annually, 600,000 tonnes of which is imported. The 8 Rivers plant could produce around 2 million tonnes of urea annually, meeting all of New Zealand's demand and leaving 1.1 million tonnes for a new export industry that would displace higher-emission urea produced elsewhere.