Hydrogen facts

By Mona Blaber, Rio Grande Chapter communications director

On October 5, a coalition of New Mexico community, environmental, and justice organizations warned state and federal lawmakers of the risks of diving head-first into fossil-fueled hydrogen projects. The groups’ letter provides guidance on the context and safeguards that must be enacted before hydrogen projects are considered in the San Juan Basin, and in New Mexico generally.The oil and gas industry has lobbied for billions in taxpayer funds for hydrogen in the coming federal infrastructure bill, and states, including New Mexico, are scrambling to win those funds for “hydrogen hubs.” But hydrogen derived from fossil gas presents significant climate and health dangers, driving new methane, carbon dioxide and other emissions as well as a massive new market for fracked gas, just when scientists tell us it is most urgent to dramatically scale back our consumption of fossil fuels.

“Northwest New Mexico has an opportunity to transition to renewable energy, severing historic reliance on fossil fuels. That should be our priority. We have been here before. We have seen the fossil fuel industry attempt to repackage fossil fuels with concepts such as ‘clean coal’ and natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ over the past 15 years which has contributed to our climate crisis and continuing carbon and methane liabilities. This approach has cost taxpayers billions of dollars and worsened pollution and adverse public health impacts in Northwest New Mexico, as some foresee with fossil fuel hydrogen,” said Mike Eisenfeld, San Juan Citizens Alliance climate and energy program manager.

Hydrogen production is already responsible for 3-4% of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution, more than all of Germany’s emissions. Nearly all current hydrogen production involves an energy-intensive process fueled by methane and emitting carbon dioxide. The fossil-fuel industry is promoting carbon capture to reduce that considerable climate impact, labeling this “blue” hydrogen. Research has found that even with a slick marketing sheen, this process is worse for the climate than burning fossil fuels at a power plant. As critical as state and federal methane safeguards are, even New Mexico’s own estimate of the impact of its proposed methane rules was within the range researchers found “blue” hydrogen to be more harmful to the climate than gas at a power plant.

In addition, all hydrogen, even renewable-generated green hydrogen, produces health-damaging nitrogen oxide (NOx) when combusted, by some estimates six times more than burning methane. NOx pollution can cause serious health impacts including asthma and increased chance of respiratory infections. NOx is also a precursor to particulate matter and ozone, which are also harmful to the respiratory system. Hydrogen and carbon-dioxide transport both present major safety issues, as does storage of such massive amounts of CO2.

“The Navajo Nation has recognized that climate change is real. The Navajo Nation Council passed a Climate Change Adaptation Plan through legislation in 2019,” said Jessica Keetso, Tó Nizhóní Ání organizer. “However, because the Navajo Nation is at an economic disadvantage, especially since coal is going away from the region, the Nation could be persuaded to back gas hydrogen if fossil-fuel interests start making promises of phantom money to the right people. It is important for Navajo leadership to remember that this year alone, the Navajo Nation has suffered major losses due to extreme weather events ranging from loss of life in catastrophic flooding to water scarcity and water restrictions imposed on Diné people by tribal entities. It is even more important to recognize that the Navajo Nation still has 40% of its population living in housing without electricity or indoor plumbing. The Navajo people are still trying to figure out how we’ll get water for ourselves and our livestock today. The Navajo Nation is a testament to how the fossil-fuel industries have failed the economy, the environment and the people. If hydrogen further exacerbates the climate crisis, then Navajo has no business pursuing, investing in, or endorsing hydrogen.”

Prioritizing fossil-gas hydrogen could also divert and delay needed state investments in renewable energy infrastructure, limits on carbon emissions, methane reductions, a transition to 100% electric vehicles, and making New Mexico families’ homes more affordable, safe, and energy efficient. These investments — not taxpayer-subsidized handouts to the gas industry — are the pathways to a climate-resilient clean-energy economy that provides stability for workers and families.

“New Mexico should develop a comprehensive strategy to decarbonize the entire state economy, and fit hydrogen into the plan where it will do the most good,” said Travis Madsen, Southwest Energy Efficiency Project transportation program director. “Hydrogen will likely be an important tool to clean up parts of the economy that clean electricity and batteries can’t efficiently reach. But the plan should come first.”

“We simply cannot afford to create new sources of climate pollution. The more optimistic ‘blue hydrogen’ proposals aspire to only 90% carbon capture. When scaled up to the level of production that some are aiming for, that 10% creates significant climate damage. Renewable energy and storage can create electricity more efficiently and affordably with zero carbon emissions,” said Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman.

In their letter, the organizations point to the dangers of prioritizing fossil gas hydrogen over critical climate solutions including efficiency, electrification, and renewables and storage development.

“New Mexico must prioritize comprehensive, durable, and enforceable climate legislation to light the pathway to a thriving, resilient New Mexico that benefits all of New Mexico’s workers and families,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, Western Environmental Law Center executive director. “We don’t need a distraction that involves risky bets of taxpayer resources that serves to further entrench the power of fossil fuel corporations.”

The letter also pointed out that fossil gas is a risky bet even in niche markets that may demand hydrogen because within a decade those markets will likely be supplied by hydrogen derived from water with renewable energy, rather than gas-fueled hydrogen.

Hydrogen harvested from water in a process powered by renewable energy — “green” hydrogen — has promise in hard-to-decarbonize applications like cement and steel production and long-haul freight. But electricity directly generated by renewable energy is always more efficient than hydrogen derived from a process powered by renewables and then combusted. New Mexico is a water-strapped state, and drought is driving irrigation limitations and wildfires. This drives the question of whether using our scarce water resources to manufacture hydrogen is the best choice.

“As an Indigenous organization working in the San Juan Basin, we ask New Mexico’s leaders from the Governor’s office, state Legislature and our federal delegation to exercise caution when pursuing hydrogen as a solution to the climate crisis. Using fossil gas hydrogen would also require sequestering carbon dioxide in communities that have multiple generations of compromised health problems. It is important that frontline and impacted communities are centered in these policy decisions. Investments should not be made into a hydrogen economy when throughout the Navajo Nation region many people still do not have running water or electricity. There needs to be serious investments in the areas of education, housing, general infrastructure and broadband while ensuring that we are building a strong clean energy workforce. On behalf of our Earth Mother and future generations, we can not support a false solution,” said Joseph Hernandez, NAVA Education Project Diné energy organizer.

“Any consideration of making New Mexico a hub for hydrogen must center principles of equity and justice,” said Dr. Virginia Necochea, New Mexico Environmental Law Center executive director. “For too long, low-income communities of color have borne the brunt of extractive industry; it is critically important that any decisions about hydrogen development in our state must factor how such a proposal would impact historically overburdened communities. We have an obligation to address these concerns before moving forward.”

“New Mexico has started down the road of a just economic transition away from an extractive economy and toward one that is regenerative,” said James Povijua, Center for Civic Policy policy director. “Development of hydrogen projects must not divert resources away from reducing impacts of climate change on overburdened communities or detract from the important work of developing an economy that works for all New Mexicans and does not destroy our air, land, and water.”

“New Mexico already has a methane pollution problem that the state is working to get under control,” said Gwen Lachelt, Western Leaders Network executive director. “We need to be investing in and prioritizing clean energy and emissions reductions, before assessing whether hydrogen should be a part of the energy transition.”

“It’s textbook industry bait-and-switch. Oil and gas knows its industry is in decline on the global scale and is looking for any and all methods to market its products under the guise of the growing renewable energy economy,” said Lucas Herndon, ProgressNow New Mexico energy and policy director.

“Hydrogen development is wholly dependent on natural gas fracking-based development. Hydrogen development would only increase oil and natural gas fracking in Northwest New Mexico. Such development will poison land, air, water and destroy sacred places,” said Mario Atencio, board member of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (C.A.R.E.) “The poisonous and cancer-causing gas and oil fracking development is already impacting the health of Diné people and this ‘blue/green hydrogen’ malarkey only greenwashes the fact that the Diné homeland will continue to be an energy sacrifice zone.”

“CCAE supports ‘green hydrogen’ for sustainable economic development that moves New Mexico away from dirty fossil fuel production and towards clean, affordable energy and jobs. The current proposal for a hydrogen hub and the Act must incorporate sufficient evaluation of the hub’s greenhouse gas emissions, and analysis of impacts on New Mexico’s communities and the environment,” said CCAE attorney Cara Lynch. “Currently, the environmental community was not consulted in the creation of the Act, an oversight that should be corrected.”

“New Mexico needs a comprehensive climate policy package requiring decarbonization pathways for every major emitting sector. Any discussion of hydrogen should be nested within this broader decarbonization effort,” says Noah Long with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Where hydrogen does play a role, it must be held to the highest standards in order to protect our climate and the public health of New Mexico’s communities.”

“Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham needs to stop supporting false climate solutions that only serve to prop up the fossil fuel industry,” said Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians.  “It’s time for the Governor to get real on climate and move New Mexico away from oil, gas, and coal toward a just and equitable transition to truly clean energy.”

Don’t believe the hydrogen hype

Hydrogen production is already responsible for 3-4 percent of the world’s carbon emissions — as much as the UK and Indonesia combined.

  • 99% of hydrogen today is generated from methane, which is the main component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than CO2.
  • Adding carbon capture to methane-fueled hydrogen production (“blue” hydrogen) reduces — but doesn’t eliminate — carbon emissions, and it adds storage and transportation issues that pose major health and safety risks to frontline communities.
  • Hydrogen derived from water and powered by renewables (“green”) may be important for hard-to- decarbonize uses but not for electricity or replacing gas in homes and buildings, where it’s less efficient, more polluting and more dangerous.
  • Billions of dollars in subsidies for “blue” (fossil- fueled) hydrogen creates a new market for a gas industry we should be transitioning away from.

Featured image – illustration of the differences among gray, blue and green hydrogen. Blue hydrogen still uses natural gas as a feedstock and produces CO2 that needs storage or disposal. From Aurelia turbines.

Fossil-fuel hydrogen a climate threat, not a solution