The head of a hydrogen lobbying group has stepped down amid concerns that blue hydrogen made from natural gas would serve as a “lock-in” for fossil fuels.
Oil and gas companies in recent years have been touting the purported advantages of hydrogen made from natural gas. Supporters admit that blue hydrogen is not zero carbon, but they argue that its use would help build demand and infrastructure while costs for green hydrogen, which is made from renewable power, are brought down.
At issue, though, is whether blue hydrogen is truly low carbon, as its boosters suggest. According to a recent study, blue hydrogen may be worse for the climate than coal. The low-carbon claims about blue hydrogen hinge on the fact that carbon dioxide needs to be captured at every step, from the steam reformation process that makes the gas from methane to the natural gas generators that provide heat and power for the reactions. Not every step is perfect, and between 10–40 percent of the carbon dioxide can evade capture depending on the system.
But where blue hydrogen really suffered in the analysis was when leaky natural gas infrastructure was included in the calculations. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas that warms the planet 83 times more than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. Gas pipelines are notoriously leaky in places, and from production to consumption, anywhere between 1.5–4.3 percent slips through the cracks. At the low end of that range, blue hydrogen was still worse than burning natural gas because of the additional methane use throughout the process. As assumptions about leakage rates rose above 3.5 percent, blue hydrogen’s climate impact became worse than coal.
That study was apparently a tipping point for Chris Jackson, who this week stepped down as chair of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. Jackson, who founded a green hydrogen company two years ago, was head of the industry group for a little over a year.
“The energy transition cannot be achieved by one silver bullet, and green hydrogen alone cannot solve all the worlds challenges,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post announcing his resignation. “But while there might not be a single ‘right’ answer, there are answers that are wrong.”
Jackson continues by saying that blue hydrogen is “at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use” which would derail goals that the country and the world have set for decarbonizing the economy. He takes particular issue with the fact that oil and gas companies have asked the UK government for decades of subsidies while also claiming that blue hydrogen will be inexpensive to produce. “If the false claims made by oil companies about the cost of blue hydrogen were true, their projects would make a profit by 2030,” he told The Guardian.
“Instead, they’re asking taxpayers for billions in subsidies for the next 25 years. They should tell the government they don’t need it. The fact that they don’t tells you everything you need to know.”
Blue hydrogen hand-outs
The UK government has endorsed hydrogen in its plans to decarbonize the British economy, saying the fuel could reduce the climate impact of heavy industry and long-haul transportation. The recently announced plan calls for blue hydrogen to bridge gap until green hydrogen is commercially viable.
In the US, the Biden administration appears to embrace blue hydrogen, too. In its infrastructure plan announced in March, the White House called for “investment in 15 decarbonized hydrogen demonstration projects,” which would appear to leave the door open for blue hydrogen. The infrastructure bill currently working its way through Congress calls for the creation of four hydrogen hubs, including one that would demonstrate the production of “clean hydrogen” from fossil fuels. In the Senate version of the bill, “clean hydrogen” means that for every kilogram of hydrogen produced, two kilograms of carbon dioxide can result. Ideally, most of it is captured and stored, but the bill doesn’t require a specific amount, and it only addresses methane leaks from orphaned wells.
The US hydrogen lobbying organization, the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, also supports both blue and green hydrogen, collectively calling them “low-carbon hydrogen” in a recent report. Ars has reached out to the group to ask if they have a stance on blue hydrogen, specifically. We’ll update this article if we hear from them.
In the UK, such hubs are already forming, with both Equinor and BP announcing blue hydrogen plants which, together, would represent nearly half of the government’s targeted 5 GW of “low-carbon” hydrogen capacity.