Fossil PR Fueling Hydrogen Push?

December 17, 2020


The recent deluge of pro-hydrogen stories in the media that tout hydrogen as a climate solution and clean form of energy can now be linked in part to FTI Consulting — one of the most notorious oil and gas industry public relations firms.

According to a new report, titled The Hydrogen Hype: Gas Industry Fairy Tale or Climate Horror Story?, released by a coalition of groups in Europe including Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Food and Water Action Europe, details the work of FTIto push hydrogen as a clean climate solution in Europe. So far it appears FTI is being quite successful in this endeavor. As the report notes, the “European Commission is most definitely onboard” with the idea of a hydrogen-based economy.

FTI Consulting’s previous and ongoing work promoting the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to sell natural gas as a climate solution were recently featured in an article by the New York Times

Among FTI’s misleading claims which it defended to the New York Times was that the Permian region in Texas — the epicenter of the U.S. shale oil industry’s fracking efforts — was reducing methane emissions. This claim, however, was based on government data that did not include emissions for actual oil and gas wells, which are major emitters of methane emissions. FTI’s argument is easily disproved as methane emissions in Texas continued to break records in 2019. 

And now FTI is taking the same approach for hydrogen as it has for natural gas — promoting it as a climate solution despite the evidence to the contrary.

Lobbying efforts for Europe to transition to hydrogen as a fuel source are led by The Hydrogen Council. According to the new report, The Hydrogen Council was formed in 2017 with members including Europe’s top fossil fuel producers such as Aramco (Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company), Shell, BP, Toyota, Honda, Microsoft, Total and many others in the energy and transportation industries. According to the new report, FTI consulting was directly involved in setting up The Hydrogen Council and the contact address for the council is even the same as FTI’s Brussels headquarters.

While Shell is touting green hydrogen, this type of ad is considered greenwashing similar to Exxon promoting algae-based fuels. These are not viable economic solutions despite having the potential to achieve that status at some point in the future. Green hydrogen is currently expensive to produce and makes up only 0.1% of the existing hydrogen market in the European Union. Ads from big oil companies promoting green hydrogen are misleading the public about the industry plans for fossil fuel based hydrogen because green hydrogen is currently prohibitively expensive and no where near being able to scale up to be a major contributor to the near-term energy markets.  

There are three main types of hydrogen: the green hydrogen advertized by Shell; blue hydrogen; and grey hydrogen. Both blue and grey hydrogen are produced from methane and are the types predominantly used in Europe. Grey hydrogen is produced from methane without using carbon capture technology. Blue hydrogen is produced from methane but is being sold as a clean energy based on the unproven idea that carbon capture can be used to economically capture the carbon emissions used to produce it. Green hydrogen is produced from water (not methane) and uses renewable energy to power the production.

Utility Dive:

  • Utility interest in hydrogen is “beyond staggering” and may soon begin showing up in long-term integrated resource plans, according to GE Gas Power Emergent Technologies Director Jeffrey Goldmeer.
  • “You may not see it publicly yet, but we’ve talked with customers, and privately they’ve shared to us that when they make their next filing, [hydrogen] will be part of their filing,” he said in an interview. Particularly for large companies with public commitments to eliminate carbon emissions entirely or become neutral by mid-century, hydrogen is becoming more and more attractive, he said.
  • GE has been accused by market analysts of misjudging the clean energy transition in its focus on gas turbines over renewable energy resources during the natural gas boom earlier this decade, but the company is eager to play a role in the power sector’s growing focus on hydrogen.

Hydrogen production is an energy intensive process, and therefore not always considered “carbon free.” Though the fuel itself emits no carbon, “gray” hydrogen is produced when fossil fuels are used to create the resource and “blue” hydrogen is made when emissions from producing the fuel are stored with carbon capture. The more environmentally attractive “green” hydrogen is created through electrolysis powered by renewable energy.

GE argued in a white paper published Tuesday that both kinds of hydrogen are needed. It also argues in part that the promise of hydrogen gives natural gas an obvious path within the energy transition, particularly for short-term emissions reductions.

But that may be a downside of hydrogen, argues Julie McNamara, senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a December blog post — that it allows the status quo of centralized fossil fuel generation to continue operating under the long-term promises of carbon capture and hydrogen-blend fuels. Carbon capture, for example, has been promised as a solution to emitting power plants for years, and is in part what GE says will be essential to deployment of blue hydrogen, but the economics have yet to be proven out at scale.

Julie McNamara for Union of Concerned Scientists:

Cost and scalability of green hydrogen. Questions around green hydrogen have long focused on issues of cost, but cost projections are dropping as cheap renewables surge online and promising electrolyzer advances and economies of scale set in. Further, as renewable penetration increases, green hydrogen can optimize use of renewables that would be otherwise curtailed during periods of renewable abundance, yielding a system-wide benefit. However, theoretical cost projections only go so far in the face of actual scaling requirements, as the sheer capacity of renewables required for a hydrogen-based economy would present a serious challenge, especially when considered in parallel with the already-daunting procurement requirements of the transitioning electricity sector, which will itself be expanding due to widespread electrification.

NOx emissions from hydrogen combustion. What could be more elegant than using renewable power to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and then using that fuel to generate emissions-free power with only water as a byproduct? Certainly not this: when hydrogen is combusted (as opposed to used in a fuel cell), it can generate significant NOx emissions, commensurate with that of natural gas combustionor worse. Which means that while hydrogen can be carbon-free, an oft-overlooked fact is that unless dedicated NOx-mitigation research is advanced and combustion improvements made, hydrogen combustion may not be pollution free, unacceptably risking a further perpetuation of pollution harms.

Storage and distribution of hydrogen. The storage and distribution of hydrogen is superficially similar to natural gas but raises unique challenges requiring special materials and processes. From point of production, hydrogen can be stored in limited-capacity aboveground tanks or large-but-geographically-constrained belowground caverns, and transported as a gas via pipeline, liquified for shipment, or further converted into a more dense carrier like ammonia—each with implications for how the initial cost of production stacks up against the final price at point of consumption. Widescale distribution via pipeline is central to many visions of a high-penetration hydrogen economy, appealing in part because it can seemingly be done in a manner similar to, and even in concert with, today’s distribution and use of natural gas. However. Today, depending on the specifics of the pipeline system, hydrogen can be mixed in with natural gas at volumes ranging from about 5 to 15 percent; above that, pipelines—and compressors, and monitoring systems—can require upgrades or full replacement to prevent embrittlement of materials and leakage of product.


12 Responses to “Fossil PR Fueling Hydrogen Push?”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    About every decade hydrogen becomes the flavor of the moth then dies in the bum. There are potential benefits/uses, specifically when large amounts of excess electricity is produced. At present, I see large sums of tax payer funds going to ‘research’, or reinventing square wheels. Hope they are not all scams or sky pie. In short, post is spot on.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      seems like there will be a role for hydrogen in things like steel making.
      The current technology doesn’t seem to offer much hope for h2 as a seasonal energy storage medium, given the inefficiency.
      possibly some breakthrough in photolysis – using sunlight directly to split water, might change things.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Not totally idle fantasy of the week. Build massive system of cheap electrolysis boxes to switch on when electricity is free or negatively priced, It happens and will become more common. Resulting H2 is stored in massive balloons, cheap, and don’t worry about the wind. Ready to be used. Might be the odd detail to be worked out.

        • Anthony William O'brien Says:

          When it is all the fossil fuel producers getting behind it, you know the plan is for it to be dirty hydrogen. Bait and switch.

  2. redskylite Says:

    Yes there is a dark side to hydrogen promotion – the chance to prolong fossil fuels in producing the most abundant element in the universe. There is also a brighter side which you can read about almost daily in the energy press, green hydrogen projects in new housing for heating/cooking (Scotland), trains, ferries, buses and not to forget steel production. Hydrogen offers a major hope in cleaning up our maritime and aviation activities. Sometimes wish I could have a peek at the later years in the century to see how much progress mankind has actually made at de-carbonizing his practices.

    Bill Gates, Amazon and British Airways are backing a hydrogen plane startup

    It has also secured $16.3 million from the UK government and is partnering with British Airways to help the airline speed up the switch from fossil fuels to hydrogen to power its fleet. Taken together, three-year-old ZeroAvia has announced new funding of $37.7 million in less than a week.

  3. jimbills Says:

    For me, hydrogen will always be linked to a news story I saw during GWB’s Presidency:

    Bush pumps up idea of hydrogen future

    Basically, use more natural gas for energy. I don’t know why the fossil fuel industry would think any differently today.

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