Climate Corner: Can’t get genie back in bottle

Oct 28, 2023

Parkersburg News and Sentinel

Vic Elam

The industrial age has served us well and the oil, gas, and coal industries have served us well to provide the energy needed to become the world power we are, provide a comfortable living standard, and be the ultimate destination for hordes of emigrants looking for a better life. But, as history has shown, we often must adapt or perish, and that time has come. Humans are naturally averse to change and that, coupled with a huge industry that is fighting for its life, change is proving to be exceedingly difficult. Even though we are inextricably linked to the natural world around us, and the damage we are inflicting is ever-present, we have become so isolated from it, we have become unaware of it. Worse yet, many of those in positions of power inflict harm to the natural world and even directly to many of us in search of riches for themselves.

The latest demonstration of this is the Appalachian hydrogen hub project (ARCH2) recently selected for funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). Congress mandated that some of the hydrogen hubs eligible for BIL funding use natural gas as the hydrogen source, so there was some political wrangling involved in this funding. Some people refer to hydrogen as the Swiss Army knife of the renewable energy world because it can be used in many ways. I applaud the idea of producing hydrogen to offset carbon intensive energy uses, it’s the proposed way of going about it that I take exception to. Some of the hydrogen projects funded by the BIL are producing green hydrogen, meaning that the energy used to produce the hydrogen is from renewable sources such as solar. Conversely, the ARCH2 project will primarily be using natural gas to produce blue hydrogen and will store the carbon byproduct underground. The problem with using natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is that there are so many opportunities for things to go wrong. Start with the gas extraction, fracking wells that now go for miles and require millions of gallons of fresh water that is now removed from the water cycle and deprives streams of their natural flow.

There’s the surface damage from well sites, and roads required for access. Then the brine waste that is a byproduct of the gas wells that must be properly disposed of, and because of the harmful chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactivity associated with the brine, makes it hard to dispose of and puts people and their water supplies at risk. There is risk of methane escape throughout all aspects of this from the well installation and production to transport and at the facility that produces the hydrogen. Then the carbon disposal effort has many potential pitfalls from the damage from pipeline construction to move the carbon to a suitable injection site and the ever-present pipeline failures, to the concerns over the viability of the underground storage. And this is just some of the problem areas.

The currently used technology for green hydrogen is a process known as electrolysis and it has its own challenges. For it to be labeled as green hydrogen the energy used to produce it must come from renewable sources. If the electricity used to conduct the hydrolysis is coming from the grid; proving that the electricity used for that hydrolysis is from renewable sources can be problematic and it begs the question of might that renewable electricity be better used in other ways.

Hydrogen has been identified as an excellent energy source for steel and cement manufacturing, due to the intense heat that can be generated from it, and hydrogen is an excellent reducer for steel. However, hydrogen is not part of the answer at the new steel mill being constructed in Mason County that is being sold as a clean energy plant.

The federal government can try throwing some candy in the form of incentives through efforts like BIL and the Inflation Reduction Act, to try to entice the genie back into the bottle, but it appears that the corporate elite have the genie hog tied. Incentives appear to be working to some extent, but until we all get on board with fighting Climate Change and breaking these chains that are allowing the gap between the wealthy and everyone else to widen; I fear that we are doomed to the fate prescribed by the elite, and they are not concerned that this fate may consume us all.


Vic Elam is a Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action member, an avid outdoorsman, and contributor to organizations that share his concern for our environment and the children we borrow it from.