Blue hydrogen backlash ‘has ring of fracking row’: professor defends damning study

The row over a damning study of the climate credentials of blue hydrogen mirrors a pushback against early critics of shale gas fracking a decade ago, claimed an academic involved in both controversies as he mounted a robust defence of his latest research paper against “irritated lobbyists” – not least from Britain.

Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University in the US, said the response from blue hydrogen advocates to the paper was sharpened by the fact that it coincided with the unveiling of the UK’s national hydrogen strategy, which has blue H2 produced using abated fossil fuels “front and centre”.

“I’m the first author of the first ever peer-reviewed paper on why methane emissions from shale gas from fracking is probably a bad idea for the climate. We published that back in April of 2011,” Howarth told an online discussion organised by the Foreign Press Association, claiming that the weight of scientific opinion subsequently proved to be on his side.

“I must say this story has a very similar ring to it. People were marketing shale gas as having lower emissions because they were ignoring methane. There’s a lot of lobbying going on.

“Depending on which press release or report you read, they call it zero emissions or low emissions.

Blue hydrogen is not clean – it’s a dirty, dirty hydrogen.

“[Blue hydrogen] is not clean – it’s a dirty, dirty hydrogen.”

Howarth and Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor at Stanford University, caused a storm in August when they released the paper – billed as the first peer-reviewed study of the issue – claiming that blue hydrogen’s emissions profile could be up to 20% worse for the climate than simply burning gas, citing escape of “fugitive” methane and the entire footprint of the carbon capture and storage process.

Blue hydrogen advocates swiftly hit back, with Norwegian energy group Equinor early out of the traps claiming the US academics had based their work on “incorrect assumptions”, while others said Howarth and Jacobson had made worst-case calculations about how the blue hydrogen process would work in practice.

Howarth in turn rejected those claims during this week’s webinar when responding to a question from Recharge, insisting the academics had in fact given blue hydrogen “the benefit of the doubt” in several respects.

“We didn’t use a worst-case analysis at all,” said Howarth. “We used a somewhat optimistic analysis based on the best available data. We did a sensitivity analysis across all reasonable assumptions. And our conclusion stands.”

The Cornell professor – who sits on New York State’s Climate Action Council – said his experience during the fracking debate had informed the approach to the blue hydrogen study.

“That [shale gas study] was a fairly cautious paper, but we got an incredible amount of pushback.

“I was cautious then, but I’ve learned to be even more cautious. This is a very conservative, cautious paper.”

Howarth said although I knew “I’d be making some people in industry unhappy, because this [blue hydrogen] is clearly a major marketing ploy”, the backlash is likely to have been exacerbated by the timing of the paper’s release, a few days before the UK issued details of its national H2 strategy, with major CCS projects a key component.

“Blue hydrogen is front and centre, They really assume it’s zero emissions.

“They’ve been working on that for two years. There are an awful lot of people who’ve been working on that report who are very unhappy with Mark Jacobson and I.”

The US study added fuel to the flames of a question that has become among the most debated in the energy transition – the relative roles blue hydrogen and green H2, produced using renewable-powered electrolysis, should play in global decarbonisation.

Howarth said green H2 “should undoubtedly play a role in our energy future”, while the likes of a top executive from renewables giant Enel believe that any other form of H2 than green “will be a trick”.

August also saw the resignation of Christopher Jackson chair of the UK Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association, who claimed Britain’s ‘twin track’ national strategy of blue and green hydrogen “risks betraying future generations”.

Howarth said: “I appreciated the timing of him standing up, because it came right at the time of the pushback.”

This post appeared first on Recharge News.

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