Credit - Illustration by Dan Page for TIME
As a committee of climate scientists and environmental officials deliberated over how to drastically cut New York State’s carbon footprint last summer, natural gas industry representatives were putting forward a counterintuitive pitch: hydrogen, made from fossil fuels.
The concept was simple, explained natural-gas proponents serving on the state’s climate-action council. Industrial hydrogen suppliers had long used a process called steam methane reforming (SMR) to produce what the industry calls “gray” hydrogen from natural gas—a system that accounts for 95% of all current hydrogen production, but releases large amounts of carbon emissions. Emissions-free “green” hydrogen can be produced using water and renewable electricity, but that tends to be more expensive than making gray hydrogen. The solution, gas-industry representatives said, was to pursue a kind of carbon compromise. Instead of making expensive green hydrogen, industrial gray hydrogen facilities could be outfitted with carbon capture systems that buried their emissions underground. Voila: A new color in the hydrogen rainbow—safe, clean, abundant “blue” hydrogen to power the economy of the future.
Bob Howarth, a Cornell University climate scientist serving on the N.Y. State carbon-drawdown committee, decided to look into the gas industry’s arguments. “I’m not surprised that people in the natural gas industry are trying to suggest ways that they keep their industry alive,” he says. “But I was skeptical.” Together with Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, Howarth set out to document the full emissions picture arising from blue hydrogen production.
The results, published Aug. 12 in Energy Science and Engineering, were striking. According to Howarth and Jacobson’s calculations, capturing SMR carbon emissions uses so much energy and results in so much extra leakage of methane—another greenhouse gas that has many times more warming potential than carbon dioxide—that any possible CO2 emissions benefit is nearly canceled out, leaving in place a process that produces about 90% of the emissions of making grey hydrogen. Blue hydrogen is so dirty, in fact, that it’s worse for the climate than burning natural gas for heat in the first place, the researchers found.
But in the meantime, blue hydrogen’s proponents were hard at work. Backed up by industry-funded reports, lobbyists had been pushing blue hydrogen to governments around the world, and the governments were listening. The E.U. released a strategy last summer that proposed expanding blue hydrogen production over the next decade. In the U.K., bureaucrats were crafting a national “hydrogen strategy,” released last month, that gives ample support to blue hydrogen development. In the U.S., legislators are currently negotiating a trillion-dollar infrastructure package that, in its current form, would allocate $8 billion to develop so-called “clean” hydrogen, much of it using fossil fuels. To some extent, Howarth’s work had come too late. “Industry marketing is way out ahead of scientific research and policy sometimes,” he says.
That’s nothing new. From claims that natural gas could be a “bridge” to lower emissions, to promises of decarbonization through “clean coal,” pie-in-the-sky propositions from the fossil-fuel industry have been a feature of climate policy discussions for years. Now, with worldwide political will finally coalescing around an urgent imperative to draw down carbon emissions, natural-gas producers like Shell and BP and distributors like Engie have allied themselves with companies like Air Liquide that have long produced SMR hydrogen to promote blue hydrogen—which looks clean from certain angles, but from others, appears as CO2-intensive as other fossil fuels—as the future of the energy industry.
Industry groups say blue hydrogen will be critical to meeting the world’s climate goals, and can be part of a broad strategy to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But some scientists and experts say the hydrogen industry’s real purpose is to preserve the value of its natural-gas resources and distribution systems under the cover of climate stewardship, locking the world into a technology that will release yet more methane and CO2 emissions for decades to come.
For those of us who have gotten used to seeing hydrogen in the context of sleek concept cars, it can be surprising to learn that large-scale hydrogen production has been around for more than a century. Hydrogen became particularly useful after the early 20th century invention of the Haber process, which combines the gas with nitrogen in the atmosphere to produce ammonia, a compound valuable for its use in fertilizer and explosives. U.S. fossil-fuel companies began operating SMR plants to make hydrogen from natural gas in the 1930s, and the industry grew over the following decades.
Oil refineries also use hydrogen to remove sulfur from crude oil, with many refineries currently producing their own hydrogen on-site from natural gas. About 6% of the world’s natural gas (and 2% of coal, through another carbon-intensive process) is currently used to produce hydrogen, emitting 830 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the International Energy Agency. In all, hydrogen production accounts for about 2% of all the world’s carbon emissions.
But when used as a fuel, hydrogen has an environmental advantage over fossil fuels: burning hydrogen releases nothing but water vapor. Amid rising public concern over climate change in the early 2000s, hydrogen underwent a PR renaissance. No longer was it just a dirty industrial feedstock—now it was the fuel of the future. Though most hydrogen at the time was produced using SMR, experts knew large amounts of it could, in theory, be extracted from water using solar or wind power. And though the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, the hydrogen fuel made using those resources could be transported anywhere and used any time, essentially acting like a portable battery to store renewable energy. “Hydrogen fuel cells represent one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era,” said U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003 while announcing a $1.2 billion federal initiative to launch a fledgling hydrogen sector. Promises of a “hydrogen economy” that would see fossil fuels phased out in favor of the lightest element to power everything from stove-top burners to trucks abounded.
But hydrogen’s golden hour, particularly in the automotive sector, was to be short lived. In 2009, the new Obama Administration energy secretary and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu publicly lambasted the idea of a fleet of hydrogen-powered cars, saying the technology wasn’t progressing fast enough, and tried to cut government research funding. Congress restored those funds, though the Energy Department succeeded in making deep hydrogen cuts two years later. The next decade saw hydrogen’s prospects further decline. While hydrogen-powered vehicles from the likes of Toyota were beset by cost problems and difficulties building out fueling infrastructure, the battery-electric sector took off, with industry newcomers like Tesla selling half a million cars a year by the end of the next decade. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, other automakers like GM and Nissan quietly backed off hydrogen passenger car projects (though GM has continued to invest heavily in fuel cells for larger commercial vehicles).
But hydrogen stalwarts weren’t going down without a fight. In the late 2010s, fossil-fuel companies, automakers, natural-gas grid operators and legacy SMR hydrogen companies, among others, began promoting a new narrative: Hydrogen, they said, was essential to a green-energy transition. “Green” hydrogen made from renewable energy would supply some of the power demand. The “blue” variety, made from natural gas, would make up the rest, with carbon-capture-and-storage technologies mitigating its emissions.
That blue hydrogen narrative is largely descended from previous industry hype cycles around so-called “clean coal,” says Jan Rosenow, European Programme Director for the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit that helps governments implement green-energy goals. Those projects, launched in the 2010s, were largely based on the notion that coal-fired power plants would use carbon-capture equipment to bury their emissions underground—but they ultimately foundered, resulting in costly, federally-funded failures within a few years. After that, Rosenow says, industry switched tack to promoting natural gas as a low-carbon transition fuel, a push that drew environmental outcry over methane leaks along the gas-supply chain. Fossil-fuel companies, Rosenow says, needed a new option. “That’s where the whole discussion around hydrogen comes from,” he says.
As China began to cash in on a green-tech manufacturing boom in the late-2010s, European governments eager to dominate a nascent hydrogen sector proved a receptive audience for industry pitches. In 2020, the non-profit watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory released a report pointing out what it said were worrying signs of industry influence in the E.U. hydrogen strategy. “The bodies being created by the E.U. like the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance are completely industry dominated and industry driven,” says Pascoe Sabido, a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory. “I don’t know if I’d even call it lobbying—this is the E.U. putting industry in the driving seat.” He frames the hydrogen push as an attempt by fossil fuel companies to shift a coming green energy transition to suit their own interests, pointing to their involvement in hydrogen industry groups like the Hydrogen Council and Hydrogen Europe. The secretariats of both organizations were previously managed by FTI Consulting, a consulting firm that garnered controversy last year over its role in setting up groups like Texans for Natural Gas and the Main Street Investors Coalition as part of a fossil fuel industry influence campaign.
Then Bob Howarth and Mark Jacobson came out with their report last month, further sandbagging the blue hydrogen airship. Industry groups representing SMR producers, fossil-fuel companies and other hydrogen players contest their findings, pointing to their own reports, which argue that the technology can produce energy at an emissions cost 80% to 90% lower than pure fossil fuels. Daryl Wilson, executive director of the Hydrogen Council, an industry consortium, argues that Howarth’s blue hydrogen report would have come up with lower methane leakage rates if it had looked only at wells that were following industry best practices. But Howarth says there is little evidence that many in the industry actually operate that way. (Satellite imaging in recent years has found alarming gas leakage from wells and pipelines around the world.) In their calculations, he and Jacobson used the average methane leakage rate across the U.S. natural gas industry, a number they say better reflects real-world conditions.
Right now, there are only a handful of blue-hydrogen facilities around the world, but governments are preparing subsidies and investments that, if enacted, will lead to the construction of many more. Chris Jackson, a green-hydrogen entrepreneur who resigned as chair of the U.K. Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association earlier this month over the group’s inclusion of blue-hydrogen proponents, worries that fossil-fuel companies have once again hijacked the green-energy conversation. “Is it really appropriate and right that limited government resources from the public, which are meant to be supporting genuine net-zero technologies, should instead be spent on essentially allowing oil and gas companies to continue to operate the way they do today?,” Jackson says. Plans for new blue-hydrogen facilities, he says, don’t make sense from either an environmental or economic perspective. “You’re putting in infrastructure that’s going to take you five years to build and going to be there for 20 years. Everyone should be asking themselves: ‘if this is an asset…in the middle of 2040, [is it] still going to make sense to be running?’ And if not, you have to ask the question right now: ‘why are you building it?'”
Even some with optimistic views of blue hydrogen don’t see why the public should support new facilities. Dolf Gielen, director of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s Innovation and Technology Centre in Bonn, Germany, generally supports blue hydrogen, but disagrees on the question of government assistance. “If blue hydrogen means you add some [carbon-capture equipment] to an existing [methane] reformer facility, why not?” says Gielen. “It’s a different question whether governments should subsidize new blue hydrogen.”
Others say it makes little sense to invest limited government funds in a technology that only promises to reduce carbon emissions, rather than eliminate them completely. “We’re talking about 100% reductions in emissions to get to net zero,” says Rosenow, of the Regulatory Assistance Project. “In that context, there isn’t any space for just an 80% reduction. And that’s what blue hydrogen would probably deliver.”
In the massive, unthinkably complex task of replacing every boiler, automobile, locomotive, cargo ship, and airplane with a carbon-free alternative—indeed, of tearing out just about every piece of machinery installed over the past hundred years—planners, corporations, governments and citizens generally have two options for what sort of system should take their place: hydrogen or electric. Hydrogen has a high-energy density, which means it would theoretically be lighter, making it good for airplanes, long-haul trucks, and for creating especially high temperatures, like those needed to produce essential materials like steel. But because you lose a lot of energy converting electricity into green hydrogen, and because it requires new infrastructure, electricity is better for smaller scale uses like heating buildings and powering cars.
But some industry players are still trying to make hydrogen happen for all sorts of energy uses. Toyota, for instance, has continued what some green energy analysts consider to be a quixotic quest to popularize hydrogen cars, even going so far as to lobby against fuel efficiency rules and gasoline car phase-out requirements around the world that would benefit its battery-electric rivals. European gas companies have sought to show the world that homes can be heated with hydrogen, while industry consortiums push a vision of continent-wide hydrogen distribution networks both to supply gas for industry, and to replace natural-gas home-heating systems.
Wilson says such initiatives have a place in an overall decarbonization strategy, and that they could be supplied by both blue and green hydrogen. “The optimized answer for transport and heating will vary region to region,” he says. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer here.” Of course, it’s hard to know for sure; a clear idea about the benefits of blue hydrogen would require spending a few decades and many billions of dollars building the infrastructure necessary to test it.
But if blue hydrogen doesn’t pan out, we might be wishing we could go back in time and think a bit harder about investing in that technology now. As for the vast new hydrogen economy it’s intended to supply, many experts say hydrogen-fuel-cell cars are a dead end, with insurmountable cost barriers compared to battery cars, and opponents have characterized hydrogen-based home-heating plans as a gambit intended to extend the life of the gas industry through a vast expenditure of public resources.
“The science demands that we keep fossil fuels in the ground,” says Sabido, of the Corporate Europe Observatory. “If we started from that point, [fossil-fuel companies] wouldn’t have a business model. So they’re doing whatever they can to ensure…that the assets they currently have on their books still have value.”