Photo of gas flare by Varodrig

Fossil-fueled hydrogen projects take us backward in our race to avoid climate catastrophe. 

  • Hydrogen production is already responsible for 3-4% of the world’s carbon emissionsequivalent to that of the UK and Indonesia combined. New Mexico’s discussion draft of Hydrogen Hub legislation includes taxpayer-funded incentives for this type of hydrogen production.
  • Pouring taxpayer dollars into proposed fossil-fueled hydrogen projects would create new reliance on fracked gas that could lock in devastating climate consequences and health damages for frontline communities.
  • Hydrogen is carbon-free (but not pollution-free) when combusted, but hydrogen is incredibly energy-intensive to produce, and the production process for gas-derived hydrogen generates significant methane, carbon, nitrogen oxide and other pollution. While renewable-powered hydrogen could be important in some applications, most of the projects proposed in New Mexico would create significant climate and health damage — not reduce it, as hydrogen boosters claim. 
Although it is the most common element in the universe, on earth, hydrogen is generally found attached to other molecules, like oxygen in water and carbon in methane (the main ingredient in natural gas). A process called steam methane reforming is used to extract hydrogen (and carbon dioxide) from methane. Electrolysis is used to extract hydrogen from water. So large amounts of either water or methane — a potent greenhouse gas — are required for large-scale hydrogen production. 
In addition, a power source is needed to run the extraction process. Additional fossil gas is usually used to power the steam reformation of methane. Renewable energy can be used to run electrolysis. Once the hydrogen is extracted, it can be combusted or run through fuel cells to create power.
  • Combusting hydrogen produces NOx pollution, up to six times more than simply burning fossil natural gas. NOx causes serious health impacts including asthma and respiratory infections and is a precursor to particulate matter and ozone, which are also damaging to the respiratory system. Methods of lowering NOx emissions at gas power plants are currently very limited. Steam methane reforming also emits health-harming emissions including NOx, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. Despite these issues, fossil-gas lobbyists have been heavily promoting gas-fueled hydrogen with carbon capture as “blue hydrogen” to hide its dirty reality. 
  • Researchers have found that using fossil-fueled “blue” hydrogen at a power plant produces more climate emissions than a power plant directly burning natural gas or coal. Even if methane leakage is reduced to 1.4% (which is lower than the capture rate New Mexico claims its methane regulations will achieve), the study found that gas-fueled “blue” hydrogen still created more climate emissions than simply burning fossil fuels. This means that as a power plant uses increasing amounts of blue hydrogen mixed with gas, its lifecycle emissions will actually increase.
  • Even at the more aspirational levels of carbon capture for fossil-fuel (“blue”) hydrogen, these projects would create new, major sources of carbon pollution. The 90% carbon-capture rate that developers hope to achieve (but have not yet) means allowing 10% of the carbon emissions from hydrogen production to escape into the atmosphere. At the scale of new fossil-hydrogen production proposed by industry and some lawmakers, that would add significant carbon emissions humanity just cannot afford. 
  • 99 percent of current U.S. hydrogen production is derived from methane, using fossil-fuel gas and producing carbon emissions. 
  • The prospectors planning to capture carbon from fossil-gas hydrogen propose to either sequester the carbon underground or pipe it to the Permian Basin to be used for enhanced oil recovery. Storing carbon in the geological formations of the San Juan Basin is untested and poses a multitude of potential hazards. Different and equally consequential risks are inherent in storing and transporting hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide and hydrogen pipelines both present significant pipeline safety issues
  • Replacing or reducing pollution from current hydrogen production processes with “green” (renewable-powered) hydrogen, not adding new sources of pollution, should be the primary focus of hydrogen research and projects. 
  • It is always more efficient to directly create power with renewable sources than to convert renewable energy to hydrogen and then use it as an energy source. This is true across sectors and end uses. Green hydrogen should be limited to cases in which renewable energy cannot be used directly or otherwise stored effectively. 
  • Many of the hydrogen applications currently touted in New Mexico would not be financially feasible without significant federal and state subsidies. Many are more expensive than renewable energy projects. 
  • It is not reasonable to consider hydrogen as a substitute for gas in homes and buildings. Electrification is already available, more efficient, more cost-effective, and provides cleaner indoor air. Gas appliances can only handle hydrogen blending of 5-20% by volume, which severely limits the potential for emissions reductions. Hydrogen use beyond that level would require all new appliances for safety and emissions control. Hydrogen is also extremely flammable. If used in homes to replace gas, research found that the annual predicted number of explosions more than quadruple.
  • Hydrogen should not be used for most vehicles because electric options are available, more efficient, and cheaper to purchase and operate than hydrogen vehicles.
  • Blending hydrogen with methane gas at a power plant lowers the plant’s carbon emissions. However, hydrogen has a lower energy density than gas, meaning it takes a larger volume of methane to provide the same energy input as an equal volume of gas. Because of this, a blend of 30% hydrogen and 70% gas by volume only results in a 13% decrease in carbon emissions at end use. 
  • Any hydrogen leakage could undermine the benefits of green hydrogen and increase the lifecycle emissions of other types of hydrogen because hydrogen is an indirect greenhouse gas that is at least five times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe.
    • Gray hydrogen: 99% of current hydrogen production is “gray,” produced by separating methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide via “steam methane reformation,” typically powered by fossil fuels. In addition to the carbon dioxide released in the reformation process, the fracked gas used in this process leaks significant amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
    • Blue hydrogen: This is the same as gray, except some of the waste carbon dioxide is captured and sequestered or utilized. But sequestering carbon still carries unknowns, and today most captured carbon dioxide gets used to force yet more gas or oil out of the ground, making another climate-damaging industry more profitable. And like gray hydrogen, methane leakage from wells, compressors, and pipelines contributes untenable climate pollution. 
    • Green hydrogen: Is produced by separating water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis powered by renewable energy and then used as a fuel or industrial feedstock. Green hydrogen can be important in helping to decarbonize sectors where renewable energy isn’t applicable, like cement and steel production. But green hydrogen also presents problems at various stages of production, and produces NOx if it is combusted for fuel. For electricity, it is much less efficient and much more expensive than simply using renewable energy.
Facts about hydrogen’s climate dangers
Tagged on: