Fossil Fuel Interests Are Behind Canada’s Blue Hydrogen Push

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Yves here. Post author Danielle Paradis appears to assume readers are down the curve on the bogus claims made about blue hydrogen as a green energy source, although she does make that point late in the piece. By way of background, consider:

Touted as clean, ‘blue’ hydrogen may be worse than gas, coal, researchers say Science Daily

By Danielle Paradis, an Indigenous (Métis) magazine writer, journalist, editor, educator, and podcaster who lives in Treaty 6 (Edmonton, Alberta) and has written for Canadaland, Chatelaine, Toronto Star (Edmonton), Gig City, BUSTLE, Canadian True Crime Podcast, and The Sprawl. Originally published at DesmogBlog

Premier Jason Kenney, Energy Minister Sonya Savage, and Associate Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity Dale Nally in Edmonton in October 2020. Credit: Alberta Newsroom (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Talk to fossil fuel execs, government ministers, and industry reps these days and they’ll all tell a similar story: Blue hydrogen is the clean fuel of the future that will help Canada and the world get to net-zero emissions. It’ll power everything from airplanes to long-haul trucks and will even heat our homes.

Canadian media has called blue hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas and has its emissions captured, “a key part” of the nation’s emissions-reduction strategy and “fairly clean” — a claim that echoes an infographic from ATCO, a major Canadian energy company, that said blue hydrogen produces “nearly zero emissions.”

The Canadian government is relying heavily on this fuel source to deliver the promises in its net-zero emissions goals. In December 2020, the government released a hydrogen strategy that suggests that rapid expansion of the hydrogen industry — including “large-scale blue hydrogen production” by 2030 — could help the country “achieve our net-zero goal all while creating jobs, growing our economy and protecting the environment.”

Alberta, long the heart of Canada’s oil and gas industry, is banking on hydrogen, too. “It was really starting to settle in that we had probably had the last [oil and gas] boom,” then-Mayor of Edmonton Don Iveson told the Narwhal in early 2021. Hydrogen tantalizingly represents continued jobs and investment in the region.

Earlier this year, Edmonton hosted the inaugural Canadian Hydrogen Convention, which was sponsored by city and regional government, various Alberta-based business interests, and Canadian and international fossil fuel companies. The city will also be home to a hydrogen hub that paints a rosy picture of a future in which “buses, trains, heavy trucks, home heating, and farm equipment all run on zero-emissions hydrogen” and the fuel will “ensure long-term economic competitiveness as the world shifts towards a low-carbon future.”

“Our province is securing our future as a powerhouse in clean energy production,” claimed Premier Jason Kenney last summer when announcing Alberta’s $1.3 billion investment in the Edmonton hydrogen hub.

The problem with this blue rhapsody? It’s not what it seems.

The oil and gas industry is counting on both governments and the public buying into blue hydrogen, which has been called a $100 billion dollar opportunity and was featured at a gas industry conference earlier this year. To fuel this hype, the industry has produced inaccurate or misleading information that claims a combination of hydrogen as a fuel source and carbon capture will make blue hydrogen the energy resource of the future.

Kenney is a long-standing critic of climate science and booster of claims that foreign-funded environmental groups are undermining Canadian fossil fuel interests. Yet, as DeSmog’s new map of hydrogen lobbying actors in Canada shows, among the biggest beneficiaries and proponents of Alberta’s blue hydrogen push are U.S. company Air Products, Shell, Toyota, and France Hydrogène.

Credit: Michaela Herrmann, Gaia Lamperti, Danielle Paradis

Blue Dreams, Gray Realities 

Hydrogen can store and carry energy, and most hydrogen is created by using heat and pressure to convert fossil fuels to hydrogen and carbon monoxide and dioxide. This is often referred to as “gray hydrogen.” It’s the addition of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to trap the CO2 that, in turn, makes some hydrogen “blue.” It’s also possible to extract hydrogen from water using electrolysis and renewable energy, resulting in “green hydrogen.” However, green hydrogen is prohibitively expensive to make, and as of 2019, accounted for just 1 percent of hydrogen production.

Because of the barriers to green hydrogen — the only form of the fuel that is truly “clean” — blue hydrogen has been getting increasing amounts of attention as an energy source that can help us transition away from coal, oil, and gas. In fact, Canada’s net-zero emissions strategy hinges on hydrogen being the clean fuel of the future.

Since 2019, there has been a renewed focus for a Canada-first energy strategy and a homegrown solution to climate change that will positively impact other parts of the world. When Alberta’s Premier Kenney ran for office, a key part of his campaign was the promise to investigate the alleged influence of foreign funding in undermining the region’s energy industry. The resulting report into “anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns” found a trail of foreign money but no evidence of wrongdoing or illegal activity. The report further found that it couldn’t be determinedwhether foreign funding for environmental campaigns was solely responsible for killing or delaying oil and gas projects.

Ironically, the hydrogen fervor has foreign fingerprints all over it. The multinational energy company Enbridge, alongside Canadian energy company TC Energy, have been involved in pushing hydrogen in Canada. Shell is working on creating a carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility in Alberta. Nikola Corporation, an American entity, is working with TC Energy to explore joint development of hydrogen hubs in the United States and Canada. And Air Products and Chemicals Inc., an American company, is part of the multi-billion-dollar plan to build Edmonton’s hydrogen hub, which will also rely on CCS to sequester a reported 95 percent of its CO2 emissions.

Blue Is the New Greenwashing

Despite the enthusiasm for hydrogen from the energy industry and sectors of the Canadian government, climate scientists are rebuffing the idea that blue hydrogen is a clean fuel. Methane — a greenhouse gas more than 80 times more powerful than CO2 — that is vented or leaked in the production and transportation of natural gas would not be captured by CCS. And doubts abound about how effective CCS technology is.

“The only argument for blue hydrogen is, ‘let’s keep the fossil fuel industry in business,’” said Mark Z. Jacobson, the director of Stanford University’s atmosphere/energy program. The claim by oil and gas companies that blue hydrogen is clean is lacking verified data on methane emissions and ignoring the infrastructure needed to produce the fuel, he explained.

In 2021, Jacobson and Robert W. Howarth published a peer-reviewed study in Energy Science and Engineeringlooking at the lifecycle of blue hydrogen’s greenhouse gas footprint.

“Far from being low carbon,” they wrote, “greenhouse gas emissions from the production of blue hydrogen are quite high, particularly due to the release of fugitive methane.”

There’s also a usability problem. “The only real useful applications of hydrogen are long-distance heavy transport and steel production,” Jacobson told DeSmog. When it comes to cars or household heating, he explained that hydrogen is a less efficient fuel source than battery storage.

According to the 2021 study, 96 percent of hydrogen is currently generated from fossil fuels.

A separate study by researchers including Joule Bergerson from the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Calgary, concluded that blue hydrogen can only be considered low-emission if the natural gas supply along the entire supply chain, including extraction, storage, and transport, stays under 0.5 percent.

Countries such as Norway, the UK, and the Netherlands claim to have met these targets, but Jacobson said that this is a claim provided without any proof. A study published earlier this year found that oil and gas infrastructure in New Mexico’s Permian Basin was releasing more than six times more methane than previously estimated by the EPA.

In Canada, there is significant evidence that the oil and gas industry is underreporting methane emissions in Alberta. According to the federal government’s official greenhouse gas inventory, methane currently accounts for 13 percent of Canada’s GHG emissions. Environmental Defense Canada studied a report by GreenPath, an Alberta-based energy services company, and the Alberta Energy Regulator, as well as infrared video footage and found that the emissions were 60 percent higher than reported, and equipment is routinely malfunctioning and leaking methane.

The entire foundation of Canada’s strategy for achieving net-zero emissions rests on the widespread adoption of hydrogen. But, increasingly, that vision for the future seems uncertain.

“Factor in the inevitable leaks of methane from the extraction and processing of the natural gas feedstock (around 3.5 percent for Alberta), and the concept of producing clean hydrogen from natural gas looks increasingly doubtful,” Martin Bush, a renewable energy consultant, wrote in Policy Options.

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  1. Jason

    Shouldn’t the comparison be between using the methane for hydrogen with CCS versus against the methane directly? I understand that CCS invites skepticism, so the proof that it can be done needs to be presented. Only allow ‘Blue’ certification if over 95 percent of CO2 gets captured. If you can do that, methane –> hydrogen + CCS is worth trying. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      This is true, and it is the key problem with articles like this – you can only support or condemn a technology when you can fully compare it on a lifecycle analysis with all the alternatives. The problem with this technology is the problem with all ‘bridge’ technologies (the most recent of which was natural gas itself), is that it locks you for a generation into capital expenditure, so the ‘bridge’ becomes a barrier to better solutions.

      I do see specific circumstances where blue hydrogen could work. For example, if you built a blue hydrogen plant over a natural gas reservoir, and pumped the CO2 directly back into the gas void, or another suitable void, and this happened to be close to a major industrial area (because H2 is difficult to transport long distances). As it happens, I live right next to a geology where that could work (low grade gas reserves plus large salt domes close to a city). But this sort of situation only exists at the margin. And I’d question whether it could ever be the most cost effective option, especially where renewable electricity is cheap and viable.

      The reality is that there is no one technology that can save us, just as there are no technologies that should be dismissed out of hand. We need all of them, and we need them fast. But we need to have standardized methodologies for comparing all of them, with full lifestyle assessments. And bear in mind that the technology that works in one country may for all sorts of reasons by unfeasible in others.

      1. rjs

        based on 417 ppm, i once figured there are ~153,019,699,399,000,000 cubic meters of CO2 in the atmosphere, so were going to need a pretty big bottle to capture and store it all

  2. Mike

    This is a joke. There is no comparison between productive capacity of a Diesel engine to hydrogen fuel cell or combustion. While we still have normal industry nobody will use this technology, it’s an R&D subsidy.

    I guess at least it could help establish infrastructure for when we starting running out of oil. Batteries are not viable for long haul trucking or heavy equipment. Hydrogen isn’t really either but it is better. Big difference is a hydrogen truck needs a trailer of hydrogen just to haul its other trailer or it just has to turn into a short haul truck. Reference “when the trucks stop” from the energy skeptic blog.

  3. C.O.

    Nearly twenty five years ago when I was first making my way into professional work, I had the dubious fortune to work for a then mid-sized, now merged out of existence notionally Canadian oil and gas company. New staff and contractors were encouraged to read a slim, glossy hard cover book detailing an all positive all the time account of the company’s history. Its most uncanny section was the chapter dealing with the company’s vision of the future, which besides including the usual total surveillance capitalism and we won’t really own anything tropes, also had a long description of how they planned to move to the next stage in fuel production, from fossil fuels to hydrogen. The sales pitch was supposed to be how the exhaust would be ordinary water, and hydrogen would be so much easier to produce renewably!

    The whole concept as described together with what struck me as a dystopian future except for a few very rich people finished convincing me that the people running the company at the time must be unhinged. I was never so glad to be a mere contractor as in the aftermath of reading that book. Then again, maybe that was why managers encouraged contractors to read it.

    Anyway, all of which to contribute my bit of evidence to the effect that this is not a new scam.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks for linking to the ‘Just have a Think’ YT channel – its a very well made channel for anyone interested in the latest upcoming tech.

    Just a point on this comment:

    However, green hydrogen is prohibitively expensive to make, and as of 2019, accounted for just 1 percent of hydrogen production.

    This is not true in all cases. Green hydrogen is currently feasible and economic when using surplus electricity from the grid in renewable heavy grids (i.e. using surplus night time wind energy). It all depends on the grid design and size and the percentage of renewables. But it certainly has a role at the margin in ensuring the most efficient use of wind and solar heavy grids, especially when matched with nuclear.

    1. JohnnySacks

      I could make a very vulgar yet somewhat appropriate suggestion of what the green washing term ‘carbon capture’ brings to mind. Needless to say, I pretty much glaze over on any further reading when it’s promoted figuring what I’m reading is the product of a fossil fuel PR committee.

      Somehow we need to put all that nuclear fusion energy our planet is bathed in to use, otherwise the alternative is self destruction. Controlling the sun’s process would be ideal, but it seems to have some currently insurmountable problems (not unlike ‘carbon capture’) which by the time are solved, we’ll have roasted our species out of the equatorial zones.
      We continue to make advances in electrolysis, we continue to make advances in fuel cells, both technologies currently work. If Saudi Arabia weren’t such a Jurassic Park of innovation and forward thinking it might capitalize on sitting in the middle of an equatorial desert broiling in the sun all day every day with the riches to stand itself up as the green hydrogen production center of the world. Wasted opportunity.

  5. Grumpy Engineer

    “The only real useful applications of hydrogen are long-distance heavy transport and steel production,” Jacobson told DeSmog. When it comes to cars or household heating, he explained that hydrogen is a less efficient fuel source than battery storage.

    Gah… Why do people continue to listen to Mark Jacobson? He authored one of the world’s most spectacularly unrealistic “100% renewable” energy plans. It required stupendous amounts of storage. I still remember the number: 546 TWh for the US alone, which would consume 1000+ years of current worldwide battery production. It’ll never happen.

    If we truly wish to run on 100% renewable energy, using hydrogen with gas turbines to provide power during periods of unfavorable weather will be necessary. [It also may be necessary to burn hydrogen directly in homes when it’s so cold that heat pumps no longer perform adequately. Running resistor-based “emergency heat” on battery power would require massive batteries.]

    Jacobson appears to be unaware of it, but Siemens, GE, and Mitsubishi are all developing hydrogen-fueled gas turbines:

    The potential uses for hydrogen go far beyond “long-distance heavy transport and steel production“. The real question is how economically we can produce green hydrogen. I wish I knew more about the state of the electrolyzer industry, but my knowledge of it is pretty thin.

    1. JohnnySacks

      There are engineers and scientists currently not working on putting Bezos and Musk on Mars or building the next generation of automated imperial death machines working quietly on improving the efficiency of hydrolysis and fuel cells in university and corporate labs all over the world.
      Fact is, both technologies currently work as is, yet we’re currently obsessed with our lithium ion ‘everready energizer is the solution to everything’ mindset.

  6. Solarjay

    Apologies, somehow I posted this over on the Links. But this is where I was trying to post. Jay

    The big question is as always compared to what?
    All newer technologies have a subsidized period. Solar panels in the US were heavily subsidized, and the same arguments could be made. Too expensive, won’t pay for itself, it’ll never work etc.

    It’s not where the hydrogen comes from right now, it’s what is the use of it.
    It can be blended into NG pipelines to about 10-20%. Planes I don’t think will ever use hydrogen or batteries because of: energy density, flexible fuel shapes, extreme cold weather use. But we can do green liquid fuels now with what are called E fuels. CO2 and hydrogen with electricity makes a hydrocarbon fuel. It’s been around since WW2. Yes the efficiencies are currently not great, but the point is you can actually make 100% carbon free fuel. This technology also makes gasoline, and diesel. Which Is probably the best direction to go in because there is no way the majority of the world is going electric vehicle, so this is the way.

    To me the main use is for heavy duty vehicles: Mining, long haul trucks, farming equipment, and the list goes on. The energy/weight/storage vs batteries is 50 to 1. And as this website has been very active on the amount of mining to make lithium batteries is substantial!
    It would also make cars smaller and lighter.

    Part of the advantage is charging/filling up speed. Another is storage, it’s easy to fill larger tanks compared to having battery storage to fill batteries which is crazy expensive.
    High speed battery charging is all the rage, but it’s extremely hard on batteries and shortens their life. It’s also really expensive and hard on the grid.
    Hydrogen storage is a more constant charging design.

    I can go on and on. I am in a huge minority about the advantages of hydrogen and yes there are some drawbacks vs batteries. I accept the blue hydrogen as part of the implementation of a hydrogen system. With the conversion to green hydrogen as non carbon energy ( maybe) increases ( and most blue hydrogen does CCS which no one else is doing.
    As long as we are taking the short view, then the future is only batteries because Musk.

    1. Bun

      To me the main use is for heavy duty vehicles: Mining, long haul trucks, farming equipment, and the list goes on.

      A friend is a physics PhD and VP at Ballard, which has been in the fuel cell business for decades. He said the same thing to me. Batteries are for cars, scooters, etc. Fuel cells will be needed for heavy duty vehicles where batteries are not practical. The way he described it made a lot of sense.

    1. Solarjay

      Right and lithium batteries basically didn’t exist then either.
      If the GM EV1 car had had lithium batteries it would be a fantastic car.

      Hydrogen and carbon capture are being fought tooth and nail by people mistaken that somehow we can go past oil like tomorrow. Not.

      We need multiple energy/fuel mediums because they all have their different strengths and weaknesses.
      To limit and view everything through lithium chemical batteries as the 1 and only choice is just stupid.

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