Hydrogen hub isn’t the ‘clean’ energy Manchin portrays (Opinion)

By Eric Engle
Nov 1, 2023

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recently wrote a very positive op-ed piece published in the Gazette-Mail regarding the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2).

In glowing terms, Manchin spoke of the opportunities bestowed upon West Virginia from this network of hydrogen production and use that the U.S. Department of Energy and other governmental and private partners are working to bring to the Central Appalachian states of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, centered largely around the Ohio River Valley.

But the rosy picture painted by Manchin is not based in reality.

ARCH2 hydrogen production is to be fueled by what is called methane steam reforming, which separates hydrogen atoms from carbon atoms in molecules of methane (aka “natural”) gas. This process is part of obtaining what has been labeled “blue” hydrogen, with the carbon dioxide (CO2) released from the process then captured and stored in underground wells. In the case of West Virginia, the plan is to store the CO2 beneath wilderness areas, state-owned forests and other natural and scenic areas in pore space leased out by the state Division of Natural Resources, which falls under the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

Manchin conveniently ignores several problematic aspects of the ARCH2 project. For starters, a study released in 2021 by Robert W. Howarth of the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and Mark Jacobson of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, titled “How Green is Blue Hydrogen?” found that “Perhaps surprisingly, the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60% greater than burning diesel oil for heat.” This analysis even assumed that captured CO2 could be stored indefinitely, which the authors called “an optimistic and unproven assumption.”

Next, let’s look at carbon capture and storage (CCS). This technology is not just unproven at scale; it’s essentially been disproven at anywhere near scale. After decades of effort and at least 15 years of federal tax subsidies in one form or another, CCS isn’t able to successfully capture and store more than fractions of the amount of CO2 necessary to make continued exploitation of fossil fuels compliant with Paris Climate Accords goals of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius over preindustrial levels. In fact, the process wouldn’t even hit less aspirational temperature goals in the Accords.

CCS is also dangerous. The network of pipelines and storage sites necessary for successful CO2 storage on the scale needed can leak or burst or explode just as easily as pipelines or storage sites used for any other purpose. CO2 is an asphyxiant that displaces oxygen in the air. If it leaks at high pressures in pipelines or in copious amounts from underground storage sites, it will literally stop vehicle engines and, far more seriously, stop people within a certain radius from being able to breathe.

Now let’s talk fracking. Shawn Bennett, Energy and Resilience Division Manager at Batelle, one of the industry partners on the ARCH2 project, recently told attendees of a virtual presentation by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations that he saw no reason to believe that the ARCH2 project would increase fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in the region. That statement left me a bit speechless as one of the presentation attendees. As I told Gazette-Mail energy and environment reporter, Mike Tony, if you’re creating demand for methane gas, you’re creating demand for expanded fracking.

Fracked wells get tapped fast and more and more have to be drilled to keep up. Expansion is the entire business model of the fracking industry, which routinely operates in the red because of the costs of having to constantly expand regardless of market price signals for natural gas and oil. And fracking, in case you haven’t heard, is an environmental and public health nightmare.

There is definitely an important niche for hydrogen in a 21st Century clean energy economy, especially for hard-to-decarbonize sectors of the global economy like aviation and international shipping, it’s just that blue is the wrong color. We need to focus on green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is produced when renewable energy (i.e. solar) is used to power an electrolysis process that separates hydrogen atoms from the oxygen atom in water molecules. As Tony reported in a piece on ARCH2, “The U.S. Department of Energy … has projected a time frame of seven to 12.5 years for projects to ramp up operations. That projected time frame would push ARCH2’s launch past the date when analysts have said green hydrogen will sink below blue hydrogen in price.”

Fortunately, the USDOE Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations is working hard to allow for public feedback and input. You can start by emailing AppalachianH2Hub@hq.doe.gov for more information and/or to provide comments. ARCH2 is far from being a done deal and the people of our state and region must say no to blue hydrogen.

Eric Engle, of Parkersburg, is board chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.