The blue hydrogen blues

Climate Energy

The blue hydrogen blues

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Devil’s brew or transition fuel? The high-stakes debate on natural gas-fueled hydrogen rages on.

With its chemical symbol H, and its atomic number 1, Hydrogen, a colorless, odorless gas, is a universal giant. It appeared in the first second after the Big Bang and is now the most abundant chemical substance in the universe, making up 75% of all matter. Our sun is mostly composed of hydrogen.

It is also one of climate’s holy grails: a potentially carbon-free energy carrier to join the pantheon of wind and solar. Unfortunately, for now at least, to create hydrogen fuel takes copious amounts of fossil gas.

This puts “blue hydrogen” at the center of one of the hottest debates on the future of energy. On one side are climate activists and a growing number of scientists who see this as just another way to prolong the life and value of gas assets held by fossil fuel majors. On the other side are industry advocates who see blue hydrogen as a necessary part of a transition away from fossil fuels. 

The debate over hydrogen usage is nearing a critical juncture. Both the U.K., which is hosting COP 26 (the U.N. conference on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland this November) and the U.S. are looking to use blue hydrogen as a means of meeting their emissions targets. The Biden administration is committed to spending more than $8 billion to build out massive hydrogen infrastructure — much to the oil and gas industry’s delight.

Done right, hydrogen could prove an extremely effective decarbonization tool. When hydrogen is consumed in a fuel cell, it produces no greenhouse gases, just water. It can also power today’s big emitting sectors: Heavy industry, long-range trucking and maritime and aviation transport. Further, the fuel has shown promise to work as long-term — even seasonal — energy storage. 

See our related story: Could green hydrogen be Boeing’s answer to climate change?

So why are we not all jumping on the hydrogen bandwagon? The conundrum lies in how hydrogen fuel is produced. When renewable energy such as wind or solar is used to produce hydrogen, it means creating the fuel without emissions — thus “green hydrogen.” Green hydrogen could truly be a fuel of the future. Unfortunately, the reality is that more than 95% of hydrogen produced is “gray,” meaning that it is produced by using fossil gas. Blue hydrogen requires splitting gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide and presumably capturing the carbon dioxide being released. 

Burning a village to save it

Most troubling to opponents is a new finding that the process of making hydrogen produces more emissions than coal. “The greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat,” wrote Cornell biogeochemist and earth systems scientist Robert Howarth in a peer-reviewed paper published in Energy Science & Engineering.  This means that producing blue hydrogen will take even more gas than is being used today. To critics, this is the equivalent of burning a village to save it.

Howarth carries clout. He has spent the past decade leading the academic research on the impact of natural gas, fracked gas in particular. In 1993, he was hired by the state of Alaska to assess the damage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In the late 1990s, he led an effort with the International Science Council and the U.N. Environmental Program to look into the dubious sustainability of biofuels. 

“I believe passionately that I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on the fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonization goals.”

It was no surprise that debate exploded last month when his paper’s findings were front-page news in The New York Times. The energy and climate Twitterverse became a frenzied battleground. Energy finance hotshots like Miles Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and the cadre of “eco-modernists” from the Breakthrough Institute, began amassing to challenge the paper’s integrity. 

To many, the paper’s conclusions seemed illogical: How could a product that uses carbon capture technology end up being worse than the original, gaseous feed? “I expected that the paper would make some people unhappy,” Howarth tells Climate & Capital Media, “but I never expected the pushback it received.”

But in a powerful validation of the paper’s conclusion, Chris Jackson, the head of the U.K.’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association resigned in protest just five days after its publishing. Jackson’s resignation came a day after the U.K. announced its national Climate Plan in anticipation of hosting COP26 negotiations. At the center of the plan was — unsurprisingly — transforming the U.K. into a blue hydrogen leader. 

“I believe passionately that I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on the fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonization goals,” Jackson said in a statement.

Energy and climate-wise, the stakes could not be higher. The debate on blue hydrogen cuts to the core of perhaps the most divisive issue in climate change: Should the fossil fuel industry continue to have any viable role in a decarbonizing economy? 

If Howath is right, and blue hydrogen creates more carbon emissions than coal and gas, it will be a crushing defeat for the oil & gas industry. It would confirm that fossil fuels, no matter the scale of technological innovation, will not reduce carbon emissions from being expelled into the atmosphere. Further, it closes one of the last pathways to a decarbonized energy future for the oil and gas industry in its current form. 

Why politicians love natural gas and blue hydrogen

So is blue hydrogen the devil’s brew or a critical transition fuel?

First, some history: A decade ago, fossil gas was seen by both Democrats and Republicans as a clean and simple solution to the growing climate crisis. Politicians like President Obama favored shale gas because it elevated America’s energy stature in the global arena and provided jobs to millions at home. At the time, the nascent fracking boom was believed to be bringing much-needed economic growth to the nation. While the data is subject of debate, the oil and gas industry is said to support more than 10 million jobs in the U.S. alone, according to a report funded by the American Petroleum Institute.  

However, producing natural gas is — at best — a clumsy, leaky process. Worse, it does not live up its image as a “clean”  transition form of energy.  Methane, which is is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, is flared and vented during extraction. More  emissions are leaked during transport. When drilling sites are no longer economically viable, they are left to indefinitely spew methane into the atmosphere. Today, the U.S. is home to millions of leaking frack wells. Monitoring of emissions is largely done by the industry voluntarily so it is both untrustworthy and unknown. 

They also predict blue hydrogen could be producing 18% of total final energy demand by 2050

“We certainly don’t talk about gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ anymore and I view that as a victory,” Howarth says.

Despite the danger of methane the Biden Administration, is siding with the gas industry and argues that converting gas to hydrogen is a sustainable solution. Their answer to critics is so-called “carbon capture,” which would prevent a majority of carbon emissions from being released. Advocates for the technology insist that innovation can and will improve significantly. They also predict blue hydrogen could be producing 18% of total final energy demand by 2050

This is a big bet –– one that Howarth’s work casts as foolish. Based on good-faith evidence from the only two existing blue hydrogen facilities in North America, Howarth estimates that only 85% of emissions at best can be sufficiently wrangled during the process of converting gas to hydrogen.  The paper also estimates that fugitive methane emissions in gas supply chains to be around 3.5% of total production. 

Obama ignores Howath’s warnings on natural gas: “It’s not like they weren’t aware of the environmental issues, they just made a political decision.” 

Biden was also vice president when the Obama administration went all in on natural gas and fracking as a politically convenient way to not alienate large swaths of voters employed by the fossil fuel industry as part of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. 

We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions,” Obama told the nation in 2013, to the frustration of climate activists. Left intentionally unmentioned was methane.

Throughout Obama’s presidency, Howarth had been warning senior officials on methane. Early on, Howarth had a one-on-one meeting with Lisa P. Jackson, then head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “I gave her my elevator pitch on methane’s problem and shale gas,” Howorth says. 

“She stopped me a minute in and told me that she was well aware of my research and that it had been used to brief President Obama. She said that she agreed with me and thought the president did too but he was also hearing from his economic advisors that it was important to the economy and re-election campaign.” 

Howarth pauses and reflects on the encounter. “It’s not like they weren’t aware of the environmental issues, they just made a political decision.” 

Nor was he surprised when then energy secretary Steven Chu resigned from the Department of Energy that same year with explicit concerns for the emerging climate emergency. When asked about Chu’s resignation and his eventual U-turn on shale gas, Howarth says, “by the time he stepped down, he admitted he was wrong. He even telephoned me at one point to tell me that personally.” 

The contentious Infrastructure Bill has scrapped nearly $1 trillion dollars of renewable subsidies and includes $8 billion in support to “clean hydrogen.”

Today, that same political expediency is driving the U.S. to a decision to go all-in on gas-fueled blue hydrogen, warns Howarth. The Biden administration explicitly regards blue hydrogen as part of its 2030 goals to reduce emissions by 52% from 2005 levels. While the contentious Infrastructure Bill has scrapped nearly $1 trillion dollars of renewable subsidies, it pledges $8 billion in support to “clean hydrogen production use from natural gas, coal renewable energy like nuclear [or] biomass.” 

Howarth is speaking out loudly this time. “My hope here is that policymakers aren’t fully invested in blue hydrogen yet and that this research could wake them up a bit.” 

The ‘synthetic fuel’ of our era?

For those old enough to remember –– and for the rest, Google “synthetic fuels” and “Carter.” Back in the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter made a bet on technology and poured more than a billion dollars into “Project Independence” to create the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation also known as the “Great Plains Gasification Project.” It would create “synthetic fuel” from coal. The project was “prematurely terminated” ––  it went bankrupt –– and is now seen as one of the great boondoggles in U.S. energy policy.

This time the stakes are a lot higher. It’s no longer just whether the project will succeed or fail, but whether global efforts to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere succeed to ensure a livable planet.

Written by

Milo McBride

Milo McBride is a recent graduate of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. His background is in climate advocacy with the Sunrise Movement.