The Dirty Side of “Green” Hydrogen

Proponents laud green hydrogen as a new zero-carbon energy in the fight against climate change. But green hydrogen is not that simple — and not that green.

The European Union is all abuzz with what’s been hailed as the new frontier of clean energy: hydrogen. Both in Europe and in the U.S., utilities are unveiling plans to develop green hydrogen pipelines attached to regional hydrogen hubs.

The buzz began just before the EU published its Hydrogen Strategy in 2020. Hydrogen has since found its way in virtually all relevant energy policy proposals; by now, most EU member states have announced their intentions to build hydrogen infrastructure. 

The hydrogen hype is similarly strong on the other side of the Atlantic. In the U.S., the Biden Administration announced an avalanche of cash to develop hydrogen projects; notably, through the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act

Proponents have depicted hydrogen as a miracle power source that will help us fight climate change while keeping the lights on. But they’ve neglected to mention the massive obstacles they face, and the enormous costs to us.

Ultimately, a pivot to hydrogen stands to harm vulnerable communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and will siphon resources from proven climate technologies.

Green Hydrogen Isn’t So Green

Most companies insist that their hydrogen will be clean, but that’s a lofty promise to make when around 98% of global hydrogen production comes from fossil fuels. In the U.S., currently up to 95% of hydrogen energy is sourced from fracked gas. The other 5% is called “green” hydrogen, because the hydrogen comes from splitting water molecules with electricity from renewable energy.

But even if industry could produce “green” hydrogen at scale, it would still be wasteful and inefficient. Compared to renewable-powered batteries, which are 80% efficient, hydrogen fuel cells are only 30%. That makes hydrogen far more expensive than renewable-based electric power.

Moreover, hydrogen power is a thirsty power source. Throughout its life cycle, each megawatt-hour of “green” hydrogen consumes at least 5,000 liters of water. Compare that to solar, which uses 20 liters per MWh, and wind, which uses just 1 liter per MWh. At a time when climate change already threatens our water supplies and Europe experienced its worst drought in centuries this summer, a huge hydrogen buildout will only make things worse.

We can’t even be sure that “green” hydrogen will actually create no emissions. Hydrogen is a very small molecule, making it more likely than methane, a major greenhouse gas, to leak. And if it does leak, we are in trouble. Hydrogen molecules have a global warming potential 11 times greater than carbon dioxide. 

Already, the fossil gas industry in Europe operates leaky infrastructure. Despite claims that it leaks only a small percentage of product, we know that isn’t true. Randomized video imaging samples taken at major EU oil and gas sites show methane streaming right into the sky.

Moreover, authorities and industry have been unwilling to act or have proven to be powerless when faced with mega-leaks, such as the historic leak of the Nord Stream II pipeline in the North Sea in 2022. That leak beat the record of the previous largest at a U.S. fossil gas storage facility that leaked for 100 straight days. There, the utility in charge failed to to both monitor the facility properly and immediately report the leak to officials. 

Hydrogen leaks are even less regulated than methane. Though the European Commission proposed a new Methane Regulation in 2021, it is much too weak to really cut emissions and will not help the EU reach its climate goals

Green Hydrogen Risks Dangers in Our Homes and Backyards

Besides climate risks, hydrogen poses health and safety risks as well. It’s volatile and flammable, even more so than natural gas. Hydrogen pipelines have already caused explosions, posing major dangers to communities near that infrastructure. Moreover, hydrogen is currently stored as ammonia, a hazardous chemical that can even be deadly in high concentrations.

These health risks go beyond pipelines and facilities and into homes:  Utilities have proposed blending hydrogen with methane in power plants and utility lines used to heat homes. 

Not only is this wildly inefficient compared to electric heating, hydrogen blending can cause nitrogen oxide pollution six times greater than burning fracked gas. Such pollution is an ingredient for particulate matter and ozone, which causes respiratory illnesses that already plague frontline communities. 

Hydrogen build-outs threaten to entrench already existing injustices. Rather than bringing relief to communities that have been sacrifice zones for decades of industrial activity, hydrogen stands to keep them in these untenable situations. 

Dirty Energy Companies Hide Behind Green Hydrogen

It’s no coincidence that some of the dirtiest polluters are heavily investing in green hydrogen: Promoting this fuel is nothing more than greenwashing the expansion of pipelines or power plants. 

These same dirty energy utilities have hidden the dangers of climate change for decades. The fossil fuel industry as a whole spent decades delaying, blocking, and distracting from ambitious climate policy. And they are widely stalling on their climate promises: all talk, no walk. 

Companies like Total, Shell, Engie, or Enagás using the still “green” image of hydrogen as a fig leaf for their dirty activities. They are still making billions selling climate wrecking fossil fuels, while quietly advocating against real clean solutions. If allowed, they’ll gobble up our tax money through hydrogen subsidies and raise rates to help cover the expensive projects, too.

Green Hydrogen: Coming to a City Near You

The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance (ECHA), launched by the EU Commission, is full of representatives of the fossil fuel industry with a small number of civil society actors. ECHA developed a hydrogen “project pipeline” with over 1,500 hydrogen projects across Europe, aiming to facilitate financing of the plans. 

But a closer look reveals that some projects proposed in this pipeline are not hydrogen projects at all, but rather purely fossil gas projects (e.g., the proposals by GAZSYSTEM). 

However, in September, EU Commission President von der Leyen announced a “Hydrogen Bank” that would provide €3bn of tax money to boost the European hydrogen economy. This is  badnews for the planet, but good news for polluters: As one U.S. Food & Water Watch organizer put it, “Hydrogen is being used by fossil fuel interests to maintain their dangerous pipeline and energy infrastructure.”

We can’t let hydrogen continue to grow. Instead, we should be investing in community-driven solutions and shutting down this dirty infrastructure in a just transition to 100% clean energy.

We Know How To Fight Climate Change. We Don’t Need “Green” Hydrogen to Do It

Hydrogen may make sense for a few niche uses, but using it for power is a non-starter. We are facing a massive buildout that aims to make hydrogen a major part of the EU energy system. That buildout means sprawling new facilities and pipelines — and more community sacrifice zones. 

These projects are multi-billion euro distractions from the clean energy deployment we’ve been calling on for decades. We know wind, solar and geothermal electrification, demand response, and energy efficiency with weatherization will fight climate change. Not only will they do so more cheaply, more efficiently, and with far less public health risks — they will create thousands of new clean energy and climate jobs.

The truth is, oil and gas industries want to make billions pretending to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. We can’t let this happen. We must protect energy and climate decision-making from fossil fuel interests. We must fight for a 100% renewable energy transition, where no one gets left behind.

LNG: The U.S. and EU’s Deal for Disaster

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Fossil Fuels

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Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union faces an energy crisis, leaving millions of residents in energy poverty and millions more in fear of coming winters.

A key part of the EU’s solution calls for increased imports from the United States of liquefied “natural” gas, or LNG, totaling an extra 15 billion cubic meters in 2022 and 50 billion more annually until at least 2030.

A Food & Water Action Europe analysis finds that this misguided EU policy could generate 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent annually, cost over €64 billion through 2025 and lock in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades. A better investment for the EU and our planet is a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, avoiding significant fossil fuel emissions.

Open Letter on Methane Regulation: NGOs Call for Highly Increasing Ambition

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Fossil Fuels

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Food & Water Action Europe, together with an alliance of European-wide civil society organisations, has sent an open letter to the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) urging them to adopt more ambitious measures ahead of the deadline for tabling amendments to the draft report on the Methane Regulation.

The Commission’s Methane Regulation Proposal is currently under discussion in the European Parliament and EU Council. The Council is trying to dilute the Commission’s proposal, which already had many gaps, thus a strong position of the Parliament is vital.

However, the joint ENVI (Environment) and ITRE (Energy) parliamentary committees’ draft report is extremely weak, and it fails to include bold measures.

In particular, the report lacks to propose effective methane reduction measures on energy imports, and it doesn’t take into account the impacts of fracked gas imports, which is absurd considering the EU is among the largest fossil fuels importers in the world.  Additionally, the EP’s text doesn’t consider a binding methane reduction target, and it fails to mention any reference to the necessity of methane rules independent of the fossil industry’s interests and integrated into the framework of a fossil fuels phase-out.

TIME HAS COME FOR MUCH TOUGHER METHANE EMISSIONS RULES

A Dirty, Dangerous EU LNG & Pipeline Masterplan (or How to Make Sure the Fossil Gas Industry Will Profit for Years To Come)

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Fossil Fuels

A Dirty, Dangerous EU LNG & Pipeline Masterplan (or How to Make Sure the Fossil Gas Industry Will Profit for Years To Come)

After the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, EU leaders were faced with fundamental changes of the reality around fossil gas. The supply of Russian gas, already weaponized in disputes in the past, suddenly moved to the top of the agenda, while citizens and governments called for an end to the consumption of Russian gas.

Before the war, 155 billion cubic meters of gas (about a third of the EU’s historic gas demand) traveled from Russia to EU countries, with several pipeline connections delivering gas from East to West. After February 2022, decision-makers scrambled to enable new West to East flows to bring Liquefied Fossil Gas (LNG) as well as non-Russian pipeline gas into Europe.

Enabling these flows means more pipelines and more LNG terminals, which translates into more money for the fossil gas industry and a dangerous lock-in of Europe’s gas addiction.

Pipelines take many years to build and swallow hundreds of millions, if not billions. Costly LNG terminals may in some cases be installed faster, but many come with climate-wrecking long-term contracts which Europe must avoid at all costs to keep its chances to keep climate change at bay. This infrastructure lock-in is also a hugely risky economic move: With gas prices expected to stay volatile for years to come, think-tank Ember estimates Europe’s bill for gas in 2025 creaking under additional costs of €315bn. Yearly additional costs in 2030 are still estimated to amount to €250bn.

All across Europe, government-backed and private LNG terminal plans have popped up and old import terminal plans are being revived. France plans to build a terminal in Le Havre owned by TotalEnergies, which had been successfully opposed by affected communities several years ago, Croatia plans to enlarge its existing Krk LNG terminal, and the Croatian government recently agreed to subsidize the dirty plan with €180mio. The Dutch were quick to buy two floating storage and regasification units (FSRUs) which will import gas in the Eemshaven port.

Germany, which is Europe’s biggest gas user and has historically depended on Russian gas,  is the absolute epicenter of the LNG frenzy. It adopted an LNG-acceleration law to speed up the construction of the climate-wrecking terminals in May. Up to 12 new LNG terminals are planned in the country, with no such infrastructure to date – and by now the German government has secured five floating terminals to import dirty fossil gas.

Besides the French LeHavre terminal, all of the LNG terminals mentioned above have been included in the REPowerEU plans released by the EU Commission. Published as a response to Russian aggression, the EU Commission estimates another €10 billion in investments are needed to upgrade the EU infrastructure, while in the years before the war it repeatedly claimed the gas network was largely resilient.

The past shows us that expanding fossil gas infrastructure swallows not only lots of money but also takes time, often much more than projected. The story of so-called “Projects of Common Interest” (PCIs) is very illustrative of this reality. Since 2013, EU money and support has benefited priority gas PCIs that aimed at reducing Russian dependence. However, many of them have been cancelled or repeatedly delayed: Two thirds of the current top priority gas projects pushed back the planned commissioning date by at least a year. Despite enjoying the PCI V.I.P label for years, construction has not even started for emblematic projects such as the Irish Shannon LNG terminal, or the EastMed pipeline project. A similar story is true for the Cypriot LNG terminal, a mega gas import project on an island with no gas infrastructure to date. Although the May 2022 REPowerEU plans claimed the terminal would be finalized in 2023, the project timeline has suffered repeated setbacks. Even pipeline projects that are finalized today, such as a new gas pipe between Poland andSlovakia, often have a year-long “top-priority” history. That 165km long pipe has enjoyed top priority PCI status for years, from 2013 until 2021, and has received over €100 mio EU tax money – and will only start operating in fall 2022 after yearlong delay. Also the 182km long Greece – Bulgaria Interconnector (IGB) faces a similar fate. Its operation date has been pushed back repeatedlyand will be years behind the planned date – despite having enjoyed priority PCI status since 2013. “Fast-tracked” pipeline processes like this, even for  fairly short pipelines that take at least 8-9 years is not reassuring when we think about the challenges Europe will be facing.

And yet, EU tax money of up to €800mio will be distributed to PCIs, including fossil gas projects soon.

These projects will not help Europeans in the difficult winters to come.

They will, however, help the fossil fuel industry maintain its dominance, which it has used to delay and distract from the existential issue of climate change. In order to move towards a livable future for all of us, and in order to be able to use the current energy crises to go full speed towards the fair, just transition we urgently need, we must stop fossil infrastructure build-out and cut fossil fuel lobby interest out of politics. Right now.

On that front, there is some good news. Irish groups have successfully called out the problems with these LNG plans, making the risk of importing fracked US LNG a countrywide issue high up on the agenda. Back in 2019, when climate change was still less visible with all its catastrophic impacts in Europe, Sweden blocked an LNG import terminal.  and rightly did so on climate grounds We urgently need more decisions like that and we need each and every European to stand up for it.

The US Supreme Court Climate Ruling Makes EU Rules to Fight Methane Even More Crucial

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Fossil Fuels

On June 30, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) made another tragic decision. Just days after overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, the Court curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s capacity to regulate climate-changing greenhouse gases for existing fossil fuels power plants under the Clean Air Act.

The ruling in West Virginia v. EPA affirmed that the agency needs specific Congressional approval to set standards on greenhouse gas emissions. Though it will not prevent EPA’s capacity to authorize power-plant-specific controls, this is a blow to the Biden administration’s already weak climate agenda, especially considering the difficulty of passing any federal climate legislation. 

The SCOTUS conservative majority sided with the fossil fuel industry interests and voted against the people and the future of our planet.

This despicable decision happens within a framework of hesitant yet visible progress. Only eight months ago, the EU and the U.S. officially launched the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 in Glasgow. Participants joining the pact agree to take voluntary actions to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. Methane is the second most powerful greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide (CO2), and it has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 over a 20 years period. The U.S. accounts for nearly 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is among the top-three global methane emitters, along with Turkmenistan and Russia. The SCOTUS ruling is a step backwards for the US’s ability to deliver on national and international climate commitments and achieve an announced level of 50% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030, The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report stresses that GHG emissions need to peak in the next few years if we want to limit global warming under 1.5°C, and deep greenhouse gas reductions need to be achieved by 2030. In particular, methane emissions should be reduced by a third. In parallel, no new investments in fossil fuel projects and no new coal plants can be built if we want to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The SCOTUS ruling will have an impact on the possibility of achieving these and more ambitious climate targets, undermining the transition to 100% clean energy systems and the phase out of fossil fuels.

Amid these worrying developments, the EU must strengthen its leading role in the global fight against climate change. However, the EU’s investments in Liquified Fossil Gas (LNG) and new fossil fuel projects are the wrong solution. More LNG imports lock us further in fossil fuel dependency, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and invest billions of Euros in what will become stranded assets. Fossil gas from the U.S. is even dirtier than Russian gas due to the high fugitive methane emissions that occur during production, which largely relies on the climate-wrecking fracking technology. As the Supreme Court threatens to weaken U.S. policies to combat climate change, Europe needs to step up and halt its LNG expansion projects.

Ambitious greenhouse gas reductions must be matched with legislative proposals that are up to the task. Therefore, the European Commission’s proposed regulation to slash methane emissions, currently under discussion in the Council and European Parliament, must provide bold solutions. This includes  extending the domestic provisions on Monitoring, Reporting and Verification (MRV), Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) and Ban on Routine Venting and Flaring (BRVF) to EU energy imports, and including methane emission reduction targets. Ultimately, it is essential that this regulation be coupled with an ambitious strategy for a phase out of fossil gas. Europe cannot adopt relaxed rules that benefit the fossil fuel industry while the world is on the edge of climate disaster. 

The EU has the duty to send a strong signal at international level in response to the climate challenges that can’t be postponed and the necessity to fulfill the Paris Agreement commitments.  Europeans do not want to be locked into dependency on dirty, leaky fracking gas. Numerous groups and individuals across the EU fight to get Europe off gas, not replace dependence on Russian gas with dependence on US LNG.

The Methane Dimension in the REPowerEU Plan

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Fossil Fuels

While it is over 100 days since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission presented its REPowerEU plan on Wednesday, May 18th. Built on the REPowerEU communication released in March, the flood of energy-related proposals, guidelines and explainers included in the strategy should aim to cut the fossil fuel cord with Russia and accelerate the clean energy transition.

The EU external strategy of the REPowerEU package aims at diversifying away from Russian energy imports, but it offers solutions that benefit the interests of the fossil fossil industry rather than the well-being of the people and the planet. Notably, it includes massive Liquified Fossil Gas (LNG), hydrogen plans and biomethane production, which incentives industrial livestock farming. 

The Commission does not commit exclusively on 100% renewable-hydrogen and foresees weak measures for “green” hydrogen production, without mentioning the principle of “additionality”. Hydrogen to be labeled truly ‘green’ must be combined with the deployment of new renewables to cover the energy required. Brussels also considers LNG imports from Africa, Asia and North-America as a lifejacket. In an act of complete dismissal of the Paris Agreement, the EU has already signed an agreement with the U.S. to import an additional 50 bcm of LNG, mainly fracked gas, annually at least until 2030.      

This stands in stark contrast to the EU’s intentions to portray itself as a champion in the fight against greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, notably methane. Methane is the main component of fossil gas and a potent GHG with a global warming potential (GWP) 83 times higher than CO2 over a 20-years period. Expanding LNG imports means boosting hydraulic-fracturing (fracking) operations in North America. Fracking involves the injection of a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break up deep shale rock layers in order to release the fossil gas and oil. This extraction method is directly responsible for the release in the atmosphere of significant amounts of methane emissions. 

Although the Commission pretends to work to stop methane leaks, it supports new fossil fuel projects, embraces false solutions such as investing in LNG, biomethane and fossil hydrogen and puts forward toothless legislative tools. This is the case of the EU Methane Regulation’s proposal, which was released in December 2021, and is currently under scrutiny in the European Parliament and Council. The text fails to extend domestic provisions on monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV), leak detection and repair (LDAR) and limits on venting and flaring (LVF) to the whole supply chain, including energy imports, even though most methane emissions associated with EU consumption occur outside its borders. Indeed, the bloc imports 90% of its gas consumption, 97% of its oil and 70% of coal and the failure to address the upstream methane emissions is a gross oversight. The Commission’s assertions that it will “aim to ensure that additional gas supplies from existing and new gas suppliers are coupled with targeted actions to tackle methane leaks and to address venting and flaring” must be converted into concrete actions. We must act now and we need an ambitious regulatory framework at home and internationally. 

The Commission did present the initiative “You collect/we buyin its REPowerEU plans, which aims at promoting the capture of methane instead of intentionally releasing it through venting and destroying it through flaring. The amount of fossil gas that is estimated to be captured by that is massive, showing as well the immense scale of the problem. But the EU should not be simply asking for methane emission reductions but requiring them as a condition of market access.

Additionally, the joint commitment taken by the EU and the US through the launch of the Global Methane Pledge (GMP) shows that methane emission reduction is at least on the agenda, but it is by far not enough. The GMP is only a voluntary-based initiative, aiming at slashing methane emissions by only 30% by 2030, and this is a global target that does not come with national commitments. A major gap is also that the top three methane emitters in the world, Russia, India and China, have not signed the pledge. The EU must show real leadership by implementing bold measures, including on the side of oil and gas imports, that can set an example internationally. 

Nor can there be a credible methane emission reduction strategy without a timely and managed phase out of fossil fuel at the EU and international level. However, with REPowerEU, leaders showed again that there are no defined plans to phase out fossil fuels. Merely reducing methane is not enough if it is not linked to serious targets to get rid of fossil fuels. 

Good intentions must be proved in deeds, not just words. A concrete commitment to reduce methane emissions, also with regard to energy imports, is a clear advantage in climate and energy security terms.

 It is hard to understand why there are no binding commitments at the international level that compel the fossil gas industry to slash methane emissions right now, especially considering that around 40% of current methane emissions could be avoided at no net cost. 

Reducing methane emissions, within a long-term fossil fuel phase-out, is the best opportunity we have to limit the planet’s warming to below 1.5°C.