When the White House announced the seven clean hydrogen hubs selected to receive $7bn of government funding, there was some surprise that four of the projects would produce blue H2 from fossil gas (with carbon capture and storage [CCS]).
But now this surprise has curdled into alarm as observers absorb the extent to which the US government is handing taxpayer money to fossil-fuel companies for a technology that may actually do little, if anything, to benefit the climate.
A widely discussed peer-reviewed study from August 2021 had found that producing blue hydrogen would result in 20% higher greenhouse gas emissions than simply burning the same amount of fossil gas.
This study by Cornell University’s Robert Howarth and Stanford University’s Mark Z Jacobson, said blue hydrogen would actually produce up to 16.7kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of hydrogen over a 20-year period — mainly due to the high upstream methane emissions from natural-gas extraction and transportation in the US, and that the fossil gas would also be burned to power CCS equipment.
The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which set aside up to $8bn of funding for the H2Hubs, stated that at least one of the hubs should use fossil fuel as its hydrogen source.
But as the main point of producing clean H2 is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it was widely assumed that the majority of awarded projects would be for green hydrogen derived from renewable energy (note: five of the selected hubs will utilise green hydrogen, but only one will solely use renewable H2).
The disappointment about the amount of blue hydrogen awarded was palpable among environmental groups — especially as wealthy fossil-fuel companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil (among the winning project developers) do not need billions of dollars of taxpayer money to make investments.
“These companies have deep balance sheets they can deploy to scale up clean hydrogen… Smaller developers who don’t have the same balance sheets that were trying to get any funding possible would probably benefit more,” said Oleksiy Tatarenko, head of hydrogen at the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).
David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis at the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), added: “We fear, and it’s based on our analysis, that the money the government is going to spend on blue hydrogen production is going to result in the continued emission of greenhouse gases for decades.
“We worry about the waste of money. But we really worry about the waste of time and giving fossil fuel companies the opportunity to build infrastructure that depends on their continued operation. That’s the real concern, to keep the world addicted to fossil fuels.
“Pursuing this technology is wasting precious time and diverting attention from investing in more effective measures to combat global warming like wind and solar resources, battery storage and energy efficiency.”
Seth Mullendore, president of the Clean Energy Group, which runs the Clean Energy States Alliance, said: “We are particularly disappointed in the administration’s investment in blue hydrogen, which would more accurately be called ‘fossil hydrogen with carbon capture’.
“The fact that more than half the hubs will be using fossil gas is outrageous. This reckless buildout of hydrogen infrastructure does nothing to advance climate goals.”
And Erik Kamrath, federal hydrogen advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) pointed out that the H2Hubs announcement was “the first glimpse of what a hydrogen market will look like, and the stakes couldn’t be higher”.
“This provides an exciting stimulus for green hydrogen but includes a concerning focus on blue hydrogen and diverting clean energy sources that are currently powering our homes which will make it a steeper path to align hydrogen to US climate goals.
“We need the strictest possible guardrails to mitigate the risk of hydrogen stalling climate progress and perpetuating pollution and public health risks for communities on the frontline of the climate crisis.”
A spokesman for the Ohio River Valley Institute think-tank added: “Investing in these unproven, absurdly expensive technologies risks locking our region into a gas-based economy that has proven incapable of generating sustained job growth and has placed community health and safety in harm’s way.”
Similar concerns were expressed by Honey May, a campaign representative for the Sierra Club environmental group in West Virginia, which will be among the states hosting the purely blue-hydrogen Appalachian hub.
“The concerns are that this is a hydrogen hub that is reliant on gas, which is still a fossil fuel and you have all of the risks and problems associated with dependance on fossil fuels — emissions, methane leaks, health implications; people are going to continue to suffer from asthma and lung damage and things that we see with fossil fuel emissions, and it just doesn’t get us to where we need to be,” she said.
There were also concerns raised about the general lack of information about what each of the hubs will actually do in practice, as the Department of Energy (DOE) has so far treated the proposals as trade secrets.
“How much hydrogen is going to be produced? What are going to be the CO2 emissions? How much CO2 is going to be captured? Then, where is it going to be used?” asked Schlissel. “DOE and the applicants have taken the position that everything is confidential.”
Patrick Drupp, director of climate policy at the Sierra Club added: “We would encourage the DOE to be as transparent as they possibly can, especially for the communities where they’ll be proposed.”
Those supporting the blue hydrogen projects said that fossil fuels would still be needed in the longer term, so excluding them would be self-defeating.
Republican senator for West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito, said environmental groups will always object to the use of natural gas.
“But my goodness, I think what we know and what we see globally, if we don’t use natural gas and coal... we’re never going to get there [to net zero] with the windmills and solar panels.”
The state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, who prior to politics made a fortune in the local coal industry, added at a news briefing: “We have been an energy state forever. We want to embrace all different forms of energy, all the different alternatives. But at the same time, we’re never going to forget our coal miners or our gas workers, and we’re going to be really, really proud of our fossil fuels.”
And the state’s controversial Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, who also made a fortune in the local coal industry, said that “you can innovate your way to a cleaner environment, but you can’t eliminate [fossil fuels”.
“You just can’t say no more coal, no more oil, no more gas, you can’t do it,” he stated. “It can’t be done and run this country. So we’re complementing through innovation and technology.”
To read a 2022 analysis of blue hydrogen's greenhouse gas emissions by the author of this article, click here.