As Hydrogen Projects Accelerate, Fears Mount About Environmental Impacts

By Grace van Deelen, a journalist who writes about climate, agriculture, wildlife, and science. Originally published at The New Lede

On a recent hot August evening, residents of the tiny rural community of Universal, Indiana packed into a public meeting to barrage operators of a proposed fertilizer plant with questions about what risks the project may pose for their health and the surrounding environment.

One after the other, worried residents quizzed officials with Wabash Valley Resources about their plans to construct what would not just be a fertilizer plant, but also one of the nation’s largest carbon sequestration projects, near their town of less than 400 people.

Wabash proposes to produce hydrogen and anhydrous ammonia for fertilizer through a process that will capture and store the resulting carbon dioxide created by the plant underground. When the plant is fully operational, Wabash Valley Resources expects to inject and store 1.65 million tons of carbon dioxide into the ground.

Company officials say the operation will be safe, producing affordable and much-needed fertilizer for farmers in an environmentally friendly manner. “While empowering agriculture Wabash Valley Resources will play a vital role in the transition to a greener world, ensuring energy security and supporting a robust economy,” the company states on its website.

Residents are skeptical. In the August 16 meeting, several voiced concerns — in raised voices and with pointed fingers — about risks to their water quality, potential leaks of carbon dioxide, and fear the project could cause earthquake-like tremors and property damage.

“It is insane,” said Kerwin Olson, the executive director of Citizens Action Coalition, an Indiana-based environmental advocacy organization. “It is the epitome of brutal capitalism done on the backs of taxpayers and our environment.”

Hydrogen Boom

The Wabash Valley Resources proposed facility is one of scores of similar projects planned or getting underway around the country after last year’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act created new incentives for hydrogen-related projects. Under the IRA, hydrogen operations can receive generous tax credits, depending on the carbon intensity of the production process.

Though hydrogen is currently most commonly used in the US as an ingredient in fertilizer and drug production, it has also emerged as a promised clean alternative to fossil fuels. The US Department of Energy (DOE) is expected to announce allocations of $7 billion of funding this fall for up to 10 new “hydrogen hub” projects across the country to support hydrogen producers and transportation infrastructure meant to accelerate the industry.

Hydrogen fuel can be made in a number of different ways, often referred to by associated colors. Green hydrogen, for example, refers to hydrogen produced from water, exclusively by using other renewable energy sources such as wind or solar energy to power the process. Gray and blue hydrogen refers to hydrogen produced from methane, using any form of energy to power the process.

Producing green hydrogen has no direct greenhouse gas emissions. But gray and blue hydrogen production creates carbon dioxide (a planet-warming greenhouse gas) as a by-product, which is then either released into the atmosphere (in the case of gray hydrogen) or captured and stored (in the case of blue hydrogen).

Black hydrogen is the least environmentally friendly form and refers to a process that uses coal to power hydrogen production. Currently, 99% of the United States’ supply of hydrogen is sourced from fossil fuels such coal, according to the DOE.

Environmental advocates nationwide have pushed back against gray and blue hydrogen projects, since sourcing the necessary methane to produce the hydrogen could provide revenue for fossil fuel companies, and since the production process creates carbon dioxide, which contributes to harmful climate warming.

Instead, environmental advocates tend to support green hydrogen, which is produced only with renewable energy.

“New hydrogen projects must be evaluated to ensure that they are not simply an attempt to prop up the fossil fuel industry,” wrote Sierra Club staff in a report.

Wabash Valley Resources says it plans to create hydrogen using petcoke, a by-product of oil refining, and environmental waste, also known as biomass.

Awaiting Guidance

The Biden Administration is expected to release detailed guidelines for its hydrogen program before the end of the year.

The guidelines could require hydrogen companies to prove that they’re consuming 100% renewable energy to produce their hydrogen fuel, a move that would help prevent emissions-intensive hydrogen projects, but could restrict the deployment of new hydrogen projects.

Hydrogen proponents are pushing for more relaxed guidelines. A group of industry consultants determined in a report earlier this year that stricter guidelines would be “ultimately hindering the economic competitiveness and adoption” of green hydrogen.

“When it comes to meeting climate targets, green hydrogen will need to be deployed alongside other solutions, therefore the sooner adoption occurs, the sooner benefits can be realized,” the authors wrote. 

In contrast, a coalition of scientists and environmental organizations sent a letter to the Biden Administration earlier this year asking for rigorous guidelines for the sector. Failing to do so, the coalition wrote, could cause the federal government to spend more than $100 billion subsidizing hydrogen projects that would result in a net increase in emissions.

“Looser requirements … will result in a grim U-TURN for the power sector, in the form of emissions increases,” Rachel Fakhry, a policy director at the National Resources Defense Council, wrote in a related report. “This would be completely unacceptable.”

“Guinea Pigs”

Back in Indiana, residents say there is a lack of adequate research on the potential environmental and safety hazards associated with injecting the carbon dioxide generated by hydrogen production into underground storage. In their view, Wabash Valley is running what amounts to a risky experiment with their land and their lives.

“They are asking for folks … to be the guinea pigs,” Olson said.

Pete Rimsans, a representative for Wabash Valley Resources, said in a statement to The New Lede that carbon capture and sequestration has a safe track record worldwide, and that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) issuance of permits to the project named the injection sites as “suitable for permanent carbon sequestration.”

“The EPA has spent two years reviewing the draft permits, with public health and safety being its number one priority … We are committed to working with our local communities as stewards of the environment as we work to address the national priorities of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the dependency on imported fertilizers,” he said.

Across the Ohio River Valley, in Mason County, West Virginia, another similar plan is underway to tap taxpayer money to build a riverside hydrogen production facility. Fidelis Clean Energy LLC, plans to produce over 100,000 tons of hydrogen per year with the help of a recently approved $62.5 million loan from the state.

Fidelis also has plans to inject 10 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in underground storage annually. Fidelis’ West Virginia project proposes to produce gray hydrogen, and to store the carbon dioxide byproduct by capturing and injecting it underground. Fidelis did not respond to requests for comment.

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  1. Kiddoc

    Regenerative agriculture uses less or no fertilizer and pesticides, which require substantial energy to manufacture and transport. It also reverses soil depletion and gradually restores topsoil. It uses healthy natural methods (like cover crops & diversification) that support soil health and recycle nutrients far more efficiently than industrial style agriculture. Food produced using regenerative methods is healthier, with more nutrients and better fat/carbohydrate/contaminant profiles.

    What happens to injected carbon dioxide, over time? How much energy is used for this process, including developing the factory and handling the wastes (short and long term)? Would severance pay, for thoughtless regulator-lobbyists, be cheaper than dealing with the aftermath of proposed “corrections”?

    1. New Okie

      Yes, and I noticed that Bayer and others are now developing GMO bacteria and fungi to act as pesticides and fertilizers. Er…don’t we already have nitrogen-fixing bacteria that “act as fertilizer” (and probably either convert other nutrients into usable forms or exist commensally with other bacteria or fungi that do)? How will these GMO organisms be “better”? Perhaps they will produce more toxins so they can outcompete the traditional soil bacteria and fungi?

      Anyhow, I heartily agree. We should be switching to regenerative / no till agriculture rather than investing in a massive Weekend At Bernie’s style farce to prop up industrial agriculture.

  2. cousinAdam

    “Severance pay for thoughtless regulator – lobbyists” is a pipe dream, I’m afraid (certainly appealing though!). A popular phrase around here is “grifters gotta grift” – if there’s a whiff of easy money they will come out of the woodwork for a taste. That said, is regenerative agriculture gonna put more cash in these farmers pockets? Just guessing, but likely crops such as corn or tobacco deplete the soil significantly and require pesticides and/ or gmo plant mods just make enough money to pay the bills and keep going. CO2 sequestration as you rightly point out is another can of worms (and not the soil building kind)!
    So’s not to be a total naysayer, I believe hydrogen could be our salvation- if we can keep the grifters and snake oil sellers at bay. (And I remain a fusion pipe dreamer;^)

    1. thousand points of green

      There are particular farmers with personal names who claim to be growing corn-yields similar to their pesticide-Haber Bosch neighbors without using any Haber Bosch Nitrogen fertilizer their own selves and using little( in some cases) to zero ( in other cases) petrochemical-derived pesticides.

      One such farmer is Gabe Brown.

      Another such farmer is Gary Zimmer.

      Another one is the husband-wife team of Klaas and Mary Howell Martens.

      And few enough others that every single one of the could be named.

      But they claim they are doing it already now. And no one has successfully debunked their claims as of yet. So the agricultural MSM tries to smother awareness of what they do under the Wet Blanket Cone of Silence. And it is left to a lonely little agricultura SSM ( Side Stream Media) to publicise their existence.
      Well . . . the SSM wouldn’t be so lonely if more people bought its papers and magazines. For example, Acres USA currently has a subscription base of 12,000 people and prints another 10,000 or so copies for sale on newstands and other ways. 22,000 copies per month is not a lot in a country of 300 million people. And quite a few of those copies are going to Canada, Australia, South Africa, etc.
      What if a million people subscribed to Acres USA? They would have to seek it out and subscribe on pro-active purpose. Aside from getting good information for themselves, they would extend Acres USA’s exposure, reach and possible power. Maybe with a million subscribers, Acres USA might achieve some kind of awareness breakthrough in the mainstream mass mind awareness-sphere. Maybe that would let it gain millions of more subscribers, spreading the info further and perhaps inspiring more food-buyers to buy food grown with Haber, Bosch or Cancer Juice. It might even set a self-feeding virtuous cycle into motion. More awareness, more customers, more farmers seeing the success of no Haber-Bosch-CancerJuice farming and adopting that method.

      1. thousand points of green

        ( . . . I meant food grown withOUT Haber-Bosch or petrochemical pesticide inputs, of course . . . )

  3. Susan the other

    Just wondering about the process of sequestering CO2 underground maybe with the bacteria to turn it into oxygen. Would that process achieve carbon that is totally stripped of oxygen or could it be inefficient to the degree that it created some freed-up oxygen but left some still attached in the form of carbon monoxide, which then gradually rises up through the soil (as it naturally does in the arctic etc) and creates a hazard to surrounding low elevations, sparking fires and making anImals sleepy?

    1. thousand points of green

      And how would bacteria turn it into oxygen in a lightless underground setting? Where would such bacteria get the metabolic energy to split the carbon from the oxygen, given that CO2 is an extremely stable molecule requiring a whole lot of energy to tear the Carbon and the Oxygen apart from eachother?

    2. Kiddoc

      Photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy and atmospheric CO2 to make glucose (sugar) and O2. The sugar is used by plants for growth. Bacteria and other soil life later decompose the plants and recycle the nutrients for the next generation of life. With decomposition, some of the CO2 returns to the atmosphere and some is retained in soil as organic matter. This improves fertility, and topsoil is regenerated gradually. This process is seven to ten times faster than topsoil development via geologic methods.

      Synthetics are not required, yet often disrupt this biologic process, that uses complex feedback mechanisms that are not fully understood.

    1. Synoia

      And then there was Hydrogen, and a multitude of profits.

      The Hedge funds looked upon the Hydrogen and it’s promised profits, and the Hydrogen was good.

      Lo, the fraud was detected, and there was a wailing and Gnashing of teeth.

  4. some guy

    When the article says . . . ” Though hydrogen is currently most commonly used in the US as an ingredient in fertilizer and drug production” . . . I assume the hydrogen they are referring to the use of in the ‘ingredient in fertilizer’ part of that sentence is the hydrogen combined with nitrogen to make anhydrous ammonia?

    It sounds like this use of hydrogen to bond with nitrogen for anhydrous ammonia is one form or another of Haber Bosch process nitrogen in general. If so, science-based ecological farmers have been growing crops with sufficient bio-fixed nitrogen for enough decades now that the non-necessity of Haber-Bosch nitrogen is obvious to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Those who still use Haber-Bosch nitrogen may be clueproof, or they may be forced, compelled,made, ordered and commanded to use Haber-Bosch nitrogen by the bankers who hold the loans on their farms, or they may be committed to Haber-Bosch for some other reason.

  5. Jan Boudart

    Any discussion of sequestering CO2 should include an account of the Lake Nyas CO2 bubble in 1986 that killed 1756 people, 3500 livestock and an undetermined number of wildlife and the 2020 CO2 pipeline explosion in Satartia MI that hospitalized 45 people, some of whom did not completely recover from being poisoned.
    CO2 is a gas; it will leak if it is sequestered underground. Brain development of a fetus or a child living in an atmosphere with excess CO2 might be affected. This is not something to play with. Sequestration and pipeline transportation of CO2 should be made illegal.

  6. PolarFleeced

    Hydrogen is just another greenwashing technology, like geo-engineering.
    It makes no sense as a transportation fuel from a thermodynamic or environmental point of view.
    Our only hope is low energy electrical production, ie solar, hydro, and wind.
    Every high energy hi-tech solution will just boil us frogs.

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