Hype is the stock in trade of fossil fuel megaproject proponents. And now that the fossil fuel industry must appear to be reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen hype becomes the greenwashing glue for “blue hydrogen” made from fossil gas.
It’s standard practice for Canada’s oil and gas companies to pitch more projects to extract and burn ever more fossil fuels, hustled as the solution to every need. Now they’ve latched onto “blue” hydrogen—derived from natural or fossil gas, with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology bolted on—as one of the magical tools to simultaneously increase gas extraction while allegedly bringing us to a distant “net zero” future.
The seductive mirage of burying all the carbon dioxide from blue hydrogen is spun around the baseless claim that we can soon have a complete turnaround success for the consistently underperforming CCS technology.
Never mind that Canadian taxpayers are expected to pick up the bill for this floundering and hugely expensive technology. And never mind that the latest pleas for fossil fuel welfare are simultaneous with jaw-dropping windfall profits for Big Oil.
Blue hydrogen from fossil gas has been rebranded as “clean” hydrogen, a sleight-of-hand association implying equivalency with the emission reductions green hydrogen can achieve using renewable electricity. Left out is the small detail of how far into the future we will supposedly get these promised, massive emission reductions needed to justify the industry’s assumption of continuing growth in fossil gas extraction.
The magical thinking stretch about attainable emission reductions approaching net zero is capped with the empty assertion that blue hydrogen will be more feasible than green hydrogen for years to come—completely ignoring that CCS money pit in the middle of the road. It’s not their money they plan to shovel in there.
The hype around all the things the hydrogen economy can ostensibly do adds juice to blue hydrogen greenwashing. One think tank proponent referred to hydrogen fueling of long haul trucks as the “lowest-hanging fruit” of decarbonization. But that glosses over all the details that would need to be worked out— economically viable and environmentally sound means of transporting hydrogen that we do not have—before hydrogen can be widely used as a transportation fuel.
The real low-hanging decarbonization fruit is replacing the extremely dirty production of hydrogen made from fossil gas. Hydrogen is used in a variety of industrial processes, accounting for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Blue hydrogen proponents understandably do not want to go there, since two tonnes of CO2 are produced for each tonne of hydrogen derived from fossil gas.
This decarbonization we so desperately need is exactly what all major proposed green hydrogen projects are offering. Green hydrogen as fuel—versus its use for industrial processes—is a possibility for the future. Not the distant future, but there are deal-breaking economic and environmental obstacles to clear before we can talk about a hydrogen economy as if the hydrogen itself is all we lack.
As well as the climate benefits of using green hydrogen for industrial processes, the economic case is clear, while some of the elements of using hydrogen as a fuel are still on the drawing board. That’s why every proposed green hydrogen project of any size is focused on producing ammonia, not fuel. This industry, still in its early days, will take years just to replace all the dirty hydrogen production that goes on today.
Hydrogen hype also flattens and displaces real discussion about the production of green hydrogen. So we get panacea-seeking governments that ignore the climate effects of hydrogen itself, and how little we know about its leakage. And we get critics simplistically using those leaks as a club to impede development of hydrogen by any means.
A more prevalent knock against green hydrogen is that it saps resources from the more efficient expansion of renewables for direct use as electricity. But industrial products must also be decarbonized if we are to stave off climate disaster.
There is considerable expert consensus that green hydrogen and ammonia will be crucial for certain industrial sectors. Key to their endorsements is that the renewable electricity those production plants use must meet the principle of additionality—drawing only newly-built generating capacity, and not draining away renewables needed to decarbonize existing electricity production. The European Union is leading the way to enshrine these fundamental green hydrogen and ammonia requirements in regulatory frameworks.
Climate change is real, it is urgent, and it requires global solutions. Climate activists are hearing a lot of noise and static about green hydrogen. And too little reporting of credible voices looking at the costs and benefits of green hydrogen production.
Ken Summers is a longtime LNG and fossil gas activist who advises a Nova Scotia green hydrogen company, Everwind Fuels. The opinions expressed are his own.