Why Trudeau’s ‘Blue Hydrogen’ Dream Isn’t Really Green


As world leaders gather in Sharm el-Sheikh for the 27th UN Climate Change Conference, Canadian politicians are hard at work selling their dreams of clean green energy to locals and outsiders.

Although the recent green energy export agreement signed between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was good news in Ottawa as much as in Berlin, Canadian taxpayers should be aware of politicians’ propensity to over-promising and not delivering. When it comes to promises of a Canadian hydrogen-powered energy transition, no skepticism is too small.

Hydrogen boosters in Canada insist the resource could help the country become the world’s leading supplier of clean green energy. With many renewable water and energy resources, it’s not hard to sell the idea to Canadians, some of whom already have the false impression that our oil and gas resources are cleaner, greener and more ethical than those of others.

While it is hypothetically possible that Canada could become a hydrogen exporter, Trudeau’s rhetoric that hydrogen shipments from Atlantic Canada to Europe could begin as early as 2025 is ambitious to say the least. There are no existing production facilities on our East Coast, no hydrogen terminals, or any of the infrastructure necessary to transport it within our borders, let alone take it across oceans. On the one hand, we can count on the total global supply of ships capable of transporting hydrogen gas, all of which are very experimental.

We are far from delivering on our vociferous promise to free Europe from its dependence on Russian oil and gas, but it’s not just the Germans we’re fooling: we’re fooling ourselves too. Hydrogen is far more myth than fact, a Rube Goldberg device of a solution to the problem of the climate crisis where a myriad of simpler solutions have existed for some time. Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel sector is the main driver of the hydrogen industry.

“The idea behind blue hydrogen is novel,” says Dr. Robert W. Howarth, David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University, “and it’s totally the creation of the oil and gas industry, promoted through the Hydrogen Council since 2018.”

The Hydrogen Council, Howarth explains, was set up by Shell, Total, British Petroleum and other oil and gas giants for the express purpose of promoting so-called blue hydrogen as an alternative fuel for the future.

When Trudeau and Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault talk about clean hydrogen green energy, they’re talking about the theoretical possibility of converting Canada’s vast water resources into hydrogen, by breaking down hydrogen molecules. water into their constituent components: oxygen and hydrogen.

To do this in an environmentally friendly way, renewable energy resources would be needed to produce the large amounts of energy needed to complete the process, for example through solar or wind power. The process is energy-intensive, and therefore expensive, but it’s also wasteful: instead of using the renewable energy source to create hydrogen, these solar panels or wind turbines could simply be plugged into existing power grids. It also avoids the problem of transporting hydrogen, which is equally experimental, expensive and devoid of existing infrastructure.

The hydrogen that can be reliably produced today, albeit in small quantities from just two commercial hydrogen production facilities anywhere in the world, is not created from water, but from methane – the so-called natural gas that Canada has in abundance. The process is called steam reforming and involves breaking down methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which the fossil fuel industry has called “grey hydrogen.”

Blue hydrogen (another industry term) has been championed by the oil and gas industry as a low-cost, low-emission “stepping stone” before green hydrogen becomes practical. This involves the steam reforming process, associated with “carbon capture and storage-sequestration”, in which the carbon dioxide by-product of the steam reforming process is supposed to be captured before being released. in the atmosphere, theoretically mitigating its effect on the climate.

“Blue hydrogen has greenhouse gas emissions that are even greater than just burning natural gas,” said Howarth, who recently co-authored the study “How Blue Hydrogen Is it green?” with Mark Z. Jacobson in the journal Energy Science and Engineering.

“To date, only two blue hydrogen plants have operated commercially worldwide,” they write. “These plants haven’t captured all the carbon dioxide from the steam methane reforming process, and they haven’t even tried to capture the vast amount of carbon dioxide generated by burning the natural gas that powers the steam methane reforming process.”

In the same way that the hypothetical green hydrogen projects imagined by Trudeau and Guilbeault would require large amounts of renewable energy to create hydrogen from water molecules, the production of blue hydrogen uses fossil fuels like feedstock (methane), as well as an energy source to power the process, all of which are carbon intensive. But that’s not all:

“Plus, they burn additional natural gas to fuel the carbon capture process,” Howarth explains. “Carbon dioxide emissions, although somewhat lower than gray hydrogen without carbon capture, are still very high. And the unburned methane emissions associated with the production, processing, and transportation of all that methane and natural gas are very high. Again, overall, the greenhouse gas footprint is larger than just burning natural gas for energy, or indeed burning any fossil fuel. It’s a terrible idea, the only beneficiary of which is the creator of the concept: the oil and gas industry.

Terrible not only for the environment, “blue hydrogen” is also economically unsustainable. A recent Moody’s report came to conclusions no less straightforward than those of Howarth and Jacobson: blue hydrogen will have a negative impact on companies’ long-term credit ratings.

Adding to this litany of problems is the fact that the chronically underperforming and highly experimental new technology is almost entirely dependent on government subsidies, even as the oil and gas majors, especially those in Canada, reap unprecedented profits. Reporting from the climate change blog DeSmog supports Howarth and Jacobson’s conclusion that fossil fuel interests, especially those in Canada, are driving politicians to drink the blue hydrogen koolaid.

Canadians are already wedded to hydrogen, even though carbon capture technology fails to capture carbon, and the method of producing hydrogen creates more carbon dioxide emissions than just burning methane. Deputy Premier Chrystia Freeland was actually committing our tax dollars to an Air Products hydrogen facility outside Alberta in August when she was aggressively accosted and reprimanded by an angry idiot. Rather than having the necessary conversation about whether this is a wise use of our limited public funds, we have instead spent a few weeks debating whether to yell at a finance minister.

On November 8, the federal government committed $461 million to the Air Products hydrogen facility, expected to be the largest in the world, and announced its intention for Canada to become a world leader in exports of hydrogen.

Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault may have inadvertently demonstrated the government’s misunderstanding of technology when he said, “Whether it’s green, blue, turquoise, we throw the color wheel, because what matters is having the right mix of renewable energies. .”

Remember that there is nothing renewable in blue hydrogen: we have a limited supply of methane, and burning it at any point in the process of creating hydrogen is a danger to the environment.

Freeland obviously wants Canada to become a global exporter of clean energy (why not, that sounds like a good idea), but plans to do so by subsidizing the very antithesis of clean energy with billions of taxpayer dollars on a wing and a prayer that maybe this time the fossil fuel sector won’t just take that money and use it to line their pockets.

Hydrogen is clearly an environmental choice as bad as it is an economic one, the massive subsidies for consistently below-average results are proof enough of that, and yet Canada’s environment and finance ministers seem to be of the opinion that throwing more public money into the fossil fuel sector will somehow accomplish what science and economics have already concluded to be both impossible and unnecessary.

Remember: all that money could have been spent upfront on buying solar panels and wind turbines.

More so, rather than a bridging fuel for a clean energy transition, blue hydrogen and carbon capture is little more than a taxpayer-subsidized scheme to use even more fossil fuels and secure big profits for the majors. oil and gas.

We don’t subsidize decarbonization or a green transition, we invent new ways to turn public money into private profit.

“Renewable hydrogen only has the potential to help decarbonize a limited number of sectors,” says Julia Levin, national climate program manager at Environmental Defense. “However, oil and gas companies are using hydrogen as a way to delay a true clean energy transition and lock in more natural gas infrastructure, which is totally incompatible with ensuring a climate-safe future. ”

Surely there is no private sector solution to the climate crisis, just as there is no environmentally friendly way to use fossil fuels. It’s seemingly obvious to everyone except those who most need to know.

“It’s really too bad,” Howarth said, “that industry lobbyists have bamboozled Canadian politicians so much about this.”

Taylor C. Noakes is a freelance journalist and public historian from Montreal.

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