Hydrogen threatens to drive wedge between Democrats and climate activists
Democrats’ fuel-neutral approach to hydrogen deployment puts party energy policy leaders at odds with climate activists and environmental justice advocates, who want a hydrogen production process that uses clean energy.
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After U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm met with local organizers in Brooklyn in June, the head of the Latino community organization UPROSE was optimistic about the Biden administration’s outreach to citizens on climate policy. However, the head of the community expressed concerns about one of the administration’s energy policy priorities: harnessing the potential of hydrogen coupled with carbon capture and sequestration.
Hydrogen derived from fossil fuels and the technology that goes with it are “false solutions” according to UPROSE executive director Elizabeth Yeampierre. The efforts would benefit big business at the expense of communities of color like his in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “They haven’t even been able to show that these interventions work”, Yeampierre said in an interview after the meeting. “But what we do know for sure is that they are not producing the benefits needed by climate change and that they are hurting our communities.”
Yeampierre’s comments reflected a rift that has arisen between climate activists and the Democrat-controlled White House and Congress on how to use hydrogen to decarbonize the economy. While the administration plans to fund multiple pathways for hydrogen production, including the use of natural gas and nuclear power, many environmental groups adamantly oppose the use of anything other than renewable zero-carbon electricity.
The split threatens to complicate the Biden administration’s commitment to tackle climate change while giving environmental justice groups a greater role in policymaking. According to a federal government definition, environmental justice communities are low-income or minority populations that have historically been vulnerable to industrial development.
Democrats in Congress have indicated they will take a technology neutral approach to the deployment of low-carbon hydrogen. The US Department of Energy has also adopted various forms of hydrogen – in an effort it calls Hydrogen Shot – from the product of renewable energy electrolysis known as green hydrogen to the product of reforming natural gas. with carbon capture known as blue hydrogen.
“We’re really trying to move away from color,” Sunita Satyapal, director of the DOE’s office of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, said in an interview. “It’s hard to have one size fits all. The point is really clean hydrogen and carbon intensity.”
But climate groups have built their support around a single path: green hydrogen produced using renewable zero-carbon electrical energy. These groups argue that the nation should only produce green hydrogen for a handful of hard-to-decarbonize industries, including industries that currently rely on carbon-intensive hydrogen, such as petroleum refining, processing. metals and fertilizer production, aviation, long-haul routes. and shipping, and high temperature industrial processes such as steelmaking.
“Ignoring the impacts on climate change, public health and the environment, proponents of blue hydrogen are essentially pushing for more fossil fuel development, including fracking, pipelines and black damage. , to Indigenous people and other people of color, often hurt first and worst because of systemic models of industrial development built alongside marginalized communities, ”a group of about 150 national, state and local organizations said in a letter from the September 7 to Democratic leaders.
Political divisions like this aren’t new, but environmental justice groups have always lacked a national platform to amplify their positions, according to David Konisky, an Indiana University professor who studied group relations with the federal government.
“What’s a little different today is that the Biden administration has gone to great lengths to have the environmental justice community represented across government,” Konisky said in an interview. “And these organizations, these individuals feel empowered to voice their opposition and to expect that the Biden administration will not just listen, but change its policies accordingly.”
Blue hydrogen becomes a wedge problem
A scientific paper concluding that burning blue hydrogen for heat is worse for the climate than burning natural gas has helped environmentalists make their case with policymakers. But the document has caught the attention of some researchers, and the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill includes substantial support for blue hydrogen and other production pathways opposed by environmentalists.
“This is a truly exceptional fuel,” said Senator Joe Manchin, D.-WV, at the DOE Hydrogen Shot Summit 2021, which took place on August 31 and September 1.
A recent DOE information request showed substantial interest among US stakeholders in the development of blue hydrogen. DOE’s loan programs office is considering about $ 3 billion in loan guarantees for hydrogen projects, office director Jigar Shah said at the summit.
Through Hydrogen Shot, the DOE will aim to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80% to $ 1 per kilogram within a decade, a goal that may be easier to achieve with blue hydrogen if gas costs in the United States remain low and carbon capture technology improves. On the other hand, hydrogen from renewable energies now costs an average of $ 5 / kg, according to the DOE. Some policymakers believe that blue hydrogen will be essential to increase demand while the costs of green hydrogen will drop.
Definition of “clean hydrogen”
The infrastructure bill would refocus a long-standing DOE hydrogen program on producing strictly “clean hydrogen”. The bill initially defines clean hydrogen as producing no more than 2 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions for every kilogram of hydrogen at the production site.
The DOE has yet to provide a definition of clean hydrogen. The agency has started working on an agreement on such a definition and other standards through the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy, or IPHE, made up of 21 countries and the European Commission. . International standards will be key to a global trade in low-carbon hydrogen that truly delivers climate benefits, energy experts say.
The United States has the resources to produce green and blue hydrogen on a large scale, so it has the potential to become an export leader, said Bernd Heid, senior partner at McKinsey & Co. Inc. who leads the global hydrogen consulting services business. at the top.
“Globally, there is a lot of interest in increasing [hydrogen supply], because we know that some countries will not be able to meet their climate goals with clean electrons alone, ”said Satyapal from DOE, who is IPHE co-vice president.
Divergent views within environmental justice communities
The potential of hydrogen to boost economic development is particularly exciting when there is an opportunity to reuse fossil fuel infrastructure in economically disadvantaged areas, said Kate Gordon, senior advisor to Granholm, during a panel on the environmental justice at the summit.
Yet, a sign of the deadlock on blue hydrogen, Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, or NYLPI, pushed back Gordon’s assessment in his opening statement.
“It’s important to be clear from the start that while communities and environmental justice organizations are accountable to them – allies like NYLPI – have no aversion to innovation, we consider the proliferation of infrastructure, the use and elimination of fossil fuels – especially in environmental justice communities – anathema to climate and environmental justice, ”he said.
US Energy Sec. Jennifer Granholm discussed local approaches to implementing federal climate policy with UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre in Brooklyn, NY, as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to engage communities of primary line.
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NYLPI is concerned that the deployment of hydrogen will produce exactly this result, Rogers-Wright added. New York’s environmental justice communities are also concerned that efforts to mix hydrogen in power plants and distribution systems will crowd out community solar projects and building electrification, said Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
But representatives of Native American communities called on the DOE to support hydrogen development pathways.
The Crow Nation in southern Montana has long sought to develop its large coal reserves and gas resources, and now sees potential in producing hydrogen through carbon capture, said CJ Stewart, director. energy for the executive branch of the tribe at the summit.
The Shoshone-Bannock tribes of southeastern Idaho have an interest in leveraging their relationship with the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory and their agricultural economy to develop hydrogen from nuclear and biomass, said Tribal Energy Department Director Talia Martin.
“Members and leadership are working to determine what is best for the tribes by researching technologies that will provide the community with energy technology that is environmentally and economically friendly,” said Martin. “It’s really important where the poverty rate is higher than the national average.”
The summit discussions illustrated the DOE’s challenge to adopt a local approach to develop hydrogen hubs. The DOE has sought to prioritize a range of communities, including those facing energy costs and access burdens, environmental justice communities, and fossil fuel-dependent economies at risk of being left behind in the process. energy transition, said Gordon.
The hydrogen policy also committed the DOE to “deep engagement” with communities to develop strategies through shared decision-making, Gordon added. “It’s a big change for a lot of us at DOE, I’ll be honest.”