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Hydrogen as a fuel will undoubtedly become a vital part of our transition to using clean fuels in order to limit the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the environment. The Canadian government is supporting the development of hydrogen through its 2020 Hydrogen Strategy as part of its efforts to mitigate climate change. Hydrogen will be especially important in the transportation sector as well as for zero-carbon heat and power in the home and industrial production.
Green hydrogen is produced from water using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar and can be considered as near to carbon-zero as no fossil fuels are burned to supply the electricity required to generate it. There are no harmful byproducts. Blue hydrogen can be produced directly from methane which is the major component of natural gas. Methane is a compound of carbon and hydrogen (CH4). Separate the two elements and you have hydrogen and carbon. The problem is what do you do with the carbon?
The oil and gas industry has long seen the writing on the wall in respect to the necessary reduction in the use of its products if the planet has a hope of surviving the climate crisis. In 2019 the production and use of oil and gas accounted for over half of global GHG emissions associated with energy consumption. This will have to dramatically reduce to keep to the net-zero by 2050 goal agreed by most countries. The industry is looking for alternative uses for its products. They are currently heavily engaged in the production of raw plastic feedstock for industrial uses, are erroneously promoting liquid natural gas (LNG) as a ‘transition fuel’ and are investing in blue hydrogen as a low-carbon alternative fuel. The recent proposal by LNG Newfoundland and Labrador Ltd to construct a facility in Placentia Bay to develop the natural gas resources in offshore Newfoundland cites blue hydrogen as one of the uses of the gas.
In order to call blue hydrogen at all ‘green’ the carbon part of methane has to be safely disposed of. This solely depends on a technology called carbon capture and storage (CCS). There is a huge amount of investment in this technology including support for research and demonstration projects from the Canadian government. CCS has been one of the great hopes for saving the fossil fuel industries from decline for decades—similar to the hype surrounding nuclear fusion in the past. CCS is really about the fossil fuel industry saving itself rather than saving the planet.
Beyond the hype from the fossil fuel lobby are significant problems with CCS. Currently there is one small commercial CCS plant in Canada and four pilot projects. Globally there are no large-scale CCS plants and the whole industry accounted for around 100Mt of carbon in 2021. To put this into perspective, Canada on its own emits 700Mt carbon per year. There is no evidence that CCS is either economically sound or feasible at the scale required to justify its commercial use. In fact, there is some evidence showing that “industrial carbon removal” is a net-contributor to carbon emissions—that is, the process of CCS produces more emissions than it captures. In comparison to other environmentally-friendly climate change solutions, CCS is relatively expensive. A 2018 study from Harvard and Yale universities found that fossil fuel facilities utilizing CCS cost between $43 and $95 USD per tonne of CO2 whereas onshore wind and solar power cost $25 to $29 USD per tonne of CO2. There are also significant dangers of leakage and environmental pollution when the carbon is stored underground and also during transport.
Alberta’s Hydrogen Roadmap with associated federal and provincial funding running into millions of dollars, envisages hydrogen as being a major part of Alberta’s energy portfolio. It refers to hydrogen produced from natural gas as ‘clean hydrogen’—another case of greenwashing from the oil and gas lobby. We need to answer the question ‘why invest in blue hydrogen and associated carbon capture and storage when green hydrogen is an environmentally safe and economically sound long term investment?’. It appears to come right down to supporting the influential oil and gas corporations.
The real danger of blue hydrogen is that it delays necessary action on climate change. Investment in environmentally-safe and proven sustainable energy technologies such as wind, solar and ‘run-of-the-river’ hydroelectric power which can be implemented now are far more beneficial to the climate. Green hydrogen can be produced right now. Other GHG-mitigating projects in public transport, building retrofits, agriculture and industrial production are also vital. The recent International Energy Authority (IEA) World Energy Outlook report cites the lack of finance for climate-friendly solutions to be one of main obstacles to achieving net-zero by 2050. In particular it says that over the crucial period to 2030 the committed investment in these areas falls well short of the emissions reductions that would be required to keep the door open to the IEA’s Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 trajectory.
Instead of focusing our efforts on known, reliable and tested solutions to the climate crisis we are letting ourselves be distracted by loud voices from an industry that is constantly looking at ways to make more profit at the expense of the environment.
David Ellis is a lifelong environmentalist beginning with CND, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace in the 1970s. He is currently Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador (Avalon) Chapter of the Council of Canadians. David and his wife, Sue, run Two Whales Coffee Shop in Port Rexton.
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