Fossil Fuel Companies Say Hydrogen Made From Natural Gas Is a Climate Solution. But the Tech May Not Be Very Green
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fairly difficult
Governments around the world are supporting "blue" hydrogen as a low emissions fuel. But the tech might not do much to stop climate change.
As a committee of climate scientists and environmental officials deliberated over how to drastically cut New York State's carbon footprint last summer, natural gas industry representatives were putting forward a counterintuitive pitch: hydrogen, made from fossil fuels.

The concept was simple, explained natural-gas proponents serving on the state's climate-action council. Industrial hydrogen suppliers had long used a process called steam methane reforming (SMR) to produce what the industry calls "gray" hydrogen from natural gas—a system that accounts for 95% of all current hydrogen production, but releases large amounts of carbon emissions. Emissions-free "green" hydrogen can be produced using water and renewable electricity, but that tends to be more expensive than making gray hydrogen. The solution, gas-industry representatives said, was to pursue a kind of carbon compromise. Instead of making expensive green hydrogen, industrial gray hydrogen facilities could be outfitted with carbon capture systems that buried their emissions underground. Voila: A new color in the hydrogen rainbow—safe, clean, abundant "blue" hydrogen to power the economy of the future.

Bob Howarth, a Cornell University climate scientist serving on the N.Y. State carbon-drawdown committee, decided to look into the gas industry's arguments. "I'm not surprised that people in the natural gas industry are trying to suggest ways that they keep their industry alive," he says. "But I was skeptical." Together with Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, Howarth set out to document the full emissions picture arising from blue hydrogen production.

The results, published Aug. 12 in Energy Science and Engineering, were striking. According to Howarth and Jacobson's calculations, capturing SMR carbon emissions uses so much energy and results in so much extra leakage of methane—another greenhouse gas that has many times more warming potential than carbon dioxide—that any possible…
Alejandro de la Garza
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