How Much of This Hype for Hydrogen “Energy” is Just Smoke and Mirrors?

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Climate and Energy

by Jim Walsh and Mia DiFelice

Industry advocates and policymakers worldwide have heralded hydrogen energy as the “fuel of the future.” But, when you clear away the industry smoke screen, there are many reasons to be skeptical.

At closer look, it’s hard to see the hydrogen hype as anything other than a greenwashing effort from fossil fuel interests and Big Ag. 

So-called hydrogen energy isn’t an energy source, but rather an energy-user. Hydrogen “energy” is inherently inefficient, expensive, and emissions-intensive. This hype will cost taxpayers and ratepayers billions of dollars, with few — if any — climate benefits to show for it.

Hydrogen’s Threat to Climate Change

Proponents claim that hydrogen is a greenhouse gas-free energy source. However, this ignores the climate impacts of hydrogen production, transportation, and use. Even so-called green hydrogen, produced with renewables, can divert renewable energy that could otherwise displace fossil fuels.   

At the same time, 95% of hydrogen we use today comes from fracked methane. This gray hydrogen requires both dirty feedstocks and heat to power production. Currently, hydrogen production accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions. Its climate impact is far greater, considering methane leakage from hydrogen production.

There’s blue hydrogen too, made with carbon capture technology built to grab CO2 emissions from gray hydrogen production. But research shows that blue hydrogen is worse for the climate than burning coal. And U.S. subsidies for carbon capture have only financed failures

Carbon capture claims allow dirty energy companies to operate business-as-usual — just with a shiny new toy attached. This means more pollution from the fracking behind blue and gray hydrogen.

Hydrogen, green or otherwise, has a dirty little secret the industry likes to ignore: in the air, it has a climate impact 33 times greater than CO2 over 20 years. That means any leaks — which are likely, due to the small size of hydrogen molecules — would invariably harm the climate. 

Moreover, hydrogen’s massive water footprint will worsen our climate-charged water access crises, including in areas already suffering from historic drought. Compared to solar and wind, which require only 20 and 1 liter of water per megawatt-hour of power produced, respectively, “green” hydrogen requires 5,000

The “Fuel of the Future” is Less Fuel, More Farm

Though boosters call it the “fuel of the future,” we only use a bit of the hydrogen we produce for energy. The rest goes to a variety of industrial processes, like steel-making and ammonia production for fertilizers. In the U.S., almost 70% of hydrogen produced here goes to oil refining.

But worldwide, ammonia fertilizers comprise the vast majority of demand, with the industry pushing to make the U.S. a major exporter. These fertilizers have a huge climate impact, thanks to their fossil fuel feedstocks. Moreover, fertilizer escaping from soil into the air creates nitrous oxide, which has 265 times the global warming potential of CO2. The risks of ammonia are compounded by the fact it can be very explosive

The industry suggests “green” hydrogen can make “carbon-free” fertilizer, but that only greenwashes other issues with fertilizers that need addressing. Big Ag already over-treats fields, leading to polluted waterways and public health problems. If the market expands, so will these issues, its climate impacts, and industry profits.

Hydrogen “Energy” is Expensive, Inefficient, and Harmful

Hydrogen is stored, transported, and burned as-is, but it’s also stored and transported as liquid ammonia. That ammonia is less explosive than pure hydrogen, but still dangerous. Transitioning hydrogen to ammonia, then back to hydrogen at end-use, is also energy-intensive

At the same time, utilities are pushing plans for “hydrogen blending.” That entails mixing hydrogen with fracked gas in pipelines for home heating and energy production. 

But hydrogen blending can be even more harmful to public health than methane. Burning it releases six times as much nitrogen oxide as burning methane, which worsens respiratory harms and other health impacts. Furthermore, it can require infrastructure changes that increase gas prices for consumers (and profits for private utilities). 

Moreover, this practice is inefficient, emissions-intensive, and doubles down on the public health risks of fracked gas heating. Any utility or company advocating for hydrogen in our daily lives is just trying to prolong the life of their dirty business models.

Hydrogen Comes for Communities Across the Country

Hydrogen investment is growing around the world. That support will have dire consequences if we don’t have guardrails that stop polluting projects hiding under the guise of “emissions reductions.” 

Right now, fossil fuel corporations are planning huge blue hydrogen projects, touting their “clean” credentials. But no one should call any of these projects “clean” when they prolong the life of polluting infrastructure, instead of shutting it down. 

The Ohio River Valley faces one such project: a massive hydrogen hub spanning Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. It stands to further harm a region already threatened by fracking and petrochemical infrastructure.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the fossil fuel industry is pushing legislation to define hydrogen and other petrochemicals as “renewable natural gas.” This would allow utilities to charge ratepayers for dirty energy investments, while claiming them as “renewable.”

In Los Angeles, the City Council is advancing hydrogen plans that will keep dirty power plants online, rather than shutting them down and replacing them with clean renewable energy. 

We’ll Stay Vigilant as Hydrogen Hype Rises Higher

No matter the color, hydrogen is full of problems. It greenwashes and entrenches harmful industries like oil refining, fracking, and unsustainable fertilizer. And while there could be a few niche uses for hydrogen energy, there’s no reason to use it in, say, cars and home heating — other than corporate profits. 

As the hydrogen hype grows, we need to stay wary of industry claims. Before making any investments in hydrogen or issuing permits, governments must evaluate the full impact of hydrogen. That includes comparing it to the tools we already have to transition away from fossil fuels, including electrification, energy efficiency, and clean renewable energy. 

Warn your friends and family: Don’t believe the hype!

This article was updated December 14, 2022, to include a paragraph on hydrogen’s water footprint.

Will The Manchin Climate Bill Reduce Climate Pollution?

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Climate and Energy

by Jim Walsh and Peter Hart

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) takes aim at a lot of things over the next decade — everything from prescription drug prices to corporate tax rates. For climate advocates, the headlining claim is this: the IRA would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 42%.

But that target isn’t actually in the bill. In fact, there are no emissions targets in the bill at all. Instead, this legislation relies on carrots (money to nudge private markets in the right direction) over sticks (actual mandates to reduce pollution).

So where does that 42% number come from? And is that reduction actually likely?

Several models claim to predict the IRA’s outcomes, but the one getting the most attention is from Princeton University’s REPEAT Project. Its model estimates that, without any new legislation, emissions will fall about 27% from 2005 highs. With the IRA, according to the model, emissions could fall about 42%.

But the model relies on some suspect reductions. For example, that 42% would need an astonishing turnaround for so-called carbon capture technologies. And it forecasts a massive increase in the deployment of clean energy — as well as tax credits for purchasing electric vehicles with requirements that no maker can meet yet.

The Analysis Makes A Bad Bet On Carbon Capture

The REPEAT analysis acknowledges that carbon capture is currently responsible for almost no emissions reductions. However, it projects that emissions reductions from carbon capture will reach 50 megatons of carbon by 2024 — mostly from coal plants -– and 200 million tons per year by 2030. 

There’s no explanation for this miraculous growth, but the analysis nonetheless suggests there will be “6 gigawatts of carbon capture retrofits at existing coal-fired power plants and 18 gigawatts of gas power plants with carbon capture installed by 2030.” These assumptions would require $17 billion in carbon capture tax credits in 2030 alone. That is far more than the $3.2 billion total 2022-2031 expenditure the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

Overall, the analysis assumes that carbon capture would deliver “roughly one-sixth to one-fifth” of total emissions cuts. This is an unfathomable improvement for an industry that has failed to deliver emissions reductions after decades of research and billions in funding. 

The analysis also leaves its assumptions unclear on the actual emissions reductions of carbon capture technology. While the industry claims it can capture 90% of emissions, real-world analyses of full lifecycle emissions put that figure closer to 39%, at best. And captured CO2 is almost entirely used for more oil drilling, eliminating any supposed climate benefits.

Counting On Cars That Might Not Exist

The analysis also pins emissions reductions on changes to existing tax credits for electric vehicles. But there are serious questions about this policy. Several reports have already noted that there are currently no EVs that will meet the IRA’s requirements. The bill mandates that tax credits can only go to EVs with battery and mineral components sourced from the U.S. or favored trading partners. 

The supply chains to make these cars don’t even exist yet, but the model assumes they will. It seems logical to think a more generous tax credit would increase EV purchases. However, real-world limitations could significantly limit projected emissions reductions. 

The Model Misses Fossil Fuels And Frontline Communities 

The REPEAT analysis also assumes continued growth in fossil fuels; gas-fired power and coal stay strong in the energy mix. This is particularly concerning for communities near fossil fuel infrastructure. They’ll see more pollution from facilities receiving subsidies under the IRA. This is more than just wasting money on dirty infrastructure — it could increase pollution under the guise of climate action.

The fossil fuel industry is also pushing for a massive expansion of fossil fuel exports, which the REPEAT modeling acknowledges. Yet, it doesn’t account for those greenhouse gas emissions in its 42% claims. 

The model also doesn’t account for the “side deal” that secured the support of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, which calls for fast-tracking major new energy projects. Right now, we can’t calculate how that agreement might work, but it explicitly aims to build new sources of pollution more quickly. 

All of this — as well as the IRA’s unconscionable provisions on new drilling on public lands — will take a serious toll on communities near polluting facilities, and will lock us into continued climate emissions.

It Doesn’t Capture Leaking Methane

The IRA’s only provision that directly addresses oil and gas industry emissions is a fee on methane leaks. Under the bill, the fee would rise to $1,500 per ton in 2026. But negotiations with Senator Manchin substantially weakened this provision. Now, it won’t apply to the majority of the industry. 

While that is not part of the REPEAT analysis, we note that they rely on a 100-year timeframe to calculate the CO2 equivalence of methane (instead of 20 years). This is misleading because so much of methane’s climate impact comes in the near-term. 

Moreover, the analysis uses outdated assumptions from the EPA that significantly underestimate methane leakage and the impacts of gas on warming in general.

There’s A Difference Between Models And Reality

There are also fundamental questions about the type of forecasting used in the REPEAT analysis. How well do these models predict the future? What assumptions do they make?

On that count, the report includes caveats that readers might miss. “Optimization modeling used in this work assumes rational economic behavior from all actors,” the authors write. They add that “these results indicate what decisions make good economic sense for consumers and businesses to make … whether or not actors make such decisions in the real world depends on many factors we are unable to model.”

Energy industry actors don’t make rational decisions based on costs, consumer benefits or the public good. For instance, clean renewable power is cheap and abundant, yet utilities embrace fossil fuels. That’s in part because they profit from existing infrastructure that poisons communities and the climate. 

Additionally, the REPEAT modeling doesn’t calculate increases in water and air pollution that will come from carbon capture, hydrogen and other fossil fuel infrastructure likely under the IRA. Increases in harmful emissions other than carbon dioxide and methane will inevitably result from more fracking, pipelines and fossil fuel power plants, too. The burden will fall on disadvantaged communities. Models don’t show these impacts, but they’re real nonetheless.

42% isn’t even close — people need to know about the IRA’s real climate impact.

The Oil Industry’s Carbon Tax Dream is a Climate Nightmare

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Climate and Energy

by Jim Walsh

Thankfully, the serious discussions around climate change have moved from “Is it real?” to “How do we prevent the climate calamities we are barreling towards at breakneck speed?” Now that we have broad agreement about the need to address the climate crisis, fossil fuel interests are changing tactics, and instead of broadly opposing regulations on greenhouse gases, they are pushing false solutions that will undermine our efforts to stop catastrophic climate change and keep their profits growing.

A great deal of credit for this shift in attitude in Congress should be given to scientists and the growing climate change movement, who respectively are clearly laying out the facts of climate change and demanding we rapidly transition to 100% clean renewable energy. Fossil fuel interests see this movement as a threat to their existence, and maybe they should: At the end of the day one of us has to go — humanity or fossil fuels. Rather than sit back and watch us stop pipelines, ban fracking, and rapidly expand clean energy, fossil fuel interests are pushing carbon taxes as false solutions to the climate crisis.

Big Oil Is Backing A Fake Climate Coalition In Congress

The Climate Leadership Council (backed by BP, Exxon Mobil, and Shell) is pushing carbon pricing aggressively in Congress. They know what we know, carbon taxes don’t work. On their face, carbon taxes are a regulatory rollback that will uses taxes instead of emissions limits to regulate greenhouse gases. The tax will be levied on these oil and gas giants, which will push up costs of energy on consumers. Without reasonable alternatives, consumers will be stuck with higher energy bills. This means not only will oil and gas companies get to keep polluting, but they can pass the cost of polluting on to taxpayers. 

A Win-Win For Factory Farms & Fossil Fuels, A Lose-Lose For the Rest Of Us

The benefits fossil fuel interests are sneaking into carbon taxes don’t stop with regulatory rollbacks. There are two scary proposals on the table right now that go much further. 

Climate Action Rebate Act of 2019

Representative Panetta (D-CA-20) introduced the Climate Action Rebate Act of 2019 (HR-4051) which is a carbon tax that actually diverts carbon tax revenue to subsidize fossil fuel interests and creates loopholes for factory farms.

The proposal will funnel carbon tax revenue to fund expensive,unproven carbon capture and storage technology at power plants and refineries. Even if these technologies are successful at stopping greenhouse gas emissions at these facilities, which is questionable, leaks of greenhouse gases in infrastructure will still remain. This technology will also not address any of the problems associated with water pollution, air pollution, or public health impacts that arise from extracting, refining, and transporting fossil fuels. To make matters worse, the legislation will subsidize oil drillers for something they would do anyway, enhanced oil recovery, which is an extreme drilling technique where CO2 is pumped into an oil well to squeeze out every last bit of oil. We should be putting a stop to enhanced oil recovery, not rewarding it with public money.

Representative Panetta also gives a handout to factory farms for installing expensive manure digesters at their facilities. These digesters increase the amount of methane generated from factory farms and captures it, so it can be burned for energy. This creates other negative side effects, including greenhouse gases and other harmful pollutants like ammonium nitrate. There are real people who live near factory farms who suffer the consequences of this recklessness. 

Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019

Another carbon tax proposal called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019 (H.R.763), introduced by Representative Deutch [D-FL-22], has 65 co-sponsors. If enacted the carbon tax would also incentivize carbon capture technology instead of mandating emissions reductions. However, this bill goes a step further by diverting carbon tax revenue to chemical and plastic manufacturers who utilize fossil fuels in their products. It’s difficult to choose the worst feature of this bill, but the next part is probably it: the legislation hinders the federal government from regulating greenhouse gases except through carbon taxes.

Fight Carbon Taxes Like You Live Here!

The climate crisis will touch everyone on the planet, and many people have already had their lives forever changed by climate supercharged hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires. Our movement is growing in power and influence, winning real victories for a clean energy future. We cannot let ourselves be blown off course by fossil fuel industry front groups and slick PR campaigns pushing false solutions like carbon taxes. 

Carbon taxes wrongly focus on making carbon-intensive energy more expensive, rather than making clean energy more affordable. The impact of these taxes will hit low- and moderate-income families the hardest — those who are least able to make adjustments to their energy usage. Instead of a confusing tax that will hurt working families and subsidize the very companies who are perpetuating the climate crisis, we should eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, put a stop to all new fossil fuel development, and create millions of jobs through a just and equitable transition to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030. 

We need to fight like we live here, because we do.

Tell the Biden Administration that our future must be fracking-free. Our existence depends on it!

Carbon Pricing: 5 Reasons It Won’t Work

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Climate and Energy

by Jim Walsh

Over 100 questions were submitted during our recent webinar on carbon pricing, and there were many questions we could not answer in the time allotted. But many of those questions were very similar, so we came up with five responses to some of the most common concerns that were raised.

1. While 100% renewable electricity is a good goal, isn’t a carbon tax is a more comprehensive approach, since it would impact emissions from transportation and electricity generation?

Stopping climate change will require serious action on multiple fronts. That is why Food & Water Watch, along with hundreds of organizations across the country, are supporting the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, or OFF Act for short – a comprehensive plan to transition the United States to 100% renewable energy by 2035.

The OFF Act is not just focused on transitioning the energy sector off fossil fuels and mandating an immediate end to new fossil fuel projects; it will also transition our transportation infrastructure, including cars and rail, to 100% renewable energy by 2035. Furthermore, the bill would also establish the Center for Clean Energy Workforce Development and the Equitable Transition Fund to ensure a just and equitable transition for workers impacted by the move to clean energy.

Conversely, carbon taxes – while popular with economists – have proven to be ineffective at actually reducing emissions in the real world. And according to research prepared for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, we will actually see an increase in electricity from fracked gas under a carbon tax plan they studied. That means more fracking, more pipelines, more compressor stations, and more power plants. The impacts of this kind of fossil fuel development disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. If we create a carbon policy that continues reliance on fossil fuels, we can expect those burdens to continue.

Some carbon tax proponents like to point out that big oil and gas companies now support a tax. But this should be serious cause for concern, not a sign of progress. These corporations know a tax will allow them to continue with business as usual, and pass any costs on to consumers.

2. Making consumers pay for corporate pollution doesn’t sound like a good idea. But wouldn’t a fee and dividend approach – which returns tax revenue to households – correct for that problem?

A fee and dividend carbon tax is still a carbon tax, and therefore it has the same problems of any carbon tax – a failure to reduce carbon emissions. In British Columbia, emissions actually went up after they enacted a carbon tax.

Nonetheless, some advocates support transferring revenue collected from the tax back to the public. This makes such a program revenue-neutral, which could theoretically appeal to conservatives or Republican lawmakers, while making the tax less regressive. This, however, would undermine the one area where a carbon tax could have some lasting impact: namely, generating revenue for the development of renewable energy.

Either way, we will not alleviate the problems inherent in dirty energy with a carbon tax, and may even make problems worse by creating a false sense of accomplishment and progress.

Putting faith in a market solution to deliver rapid changes in how our world is powered is dangerous. Markets are not, and have never been, moral structures, and they do not exist to protect our common resources or to promote equality. If we are to fight climate change, we must build a clean energy program that puts environmental justice and equality at the center, not embrace a tax as a silver bullet for dealing with inequality and a warming planet.

3. Can’t we enact a carbon pricing program while pursuing emission reductions at the same time?

In theory, one could enact a carbon tax while systematically reducing emissions. But at a certain point, these policies will come into conflict with each other. This is because a carbon tax must be recognized for what it is: A tool for turning carbon emissions into a source of government revenue. An aggressive emissions reduction plan that transitions off fossil fuels would become linked to a revenue stream from the very thing – carbon emissions – that we are seeking to eliminate.

Nobody would accept a tax on lead in people’s water as an acceptable way to slowly work towards a goal of eliminating the threat of lead poisoning from water pipes; the right solution would be to remove this threat as quickly as possible. In the same way, we should not accept that taxing carbon is an acceptable way to eliminate greenhouse gas pollution.

If our goal is to raise revenue to help fund investment in renewable energy, and to lessen the burden on low-income people during this transition, then let’s do so in a way that does not create systemic dependence on the very thing we are trying to eliminate. For starters, we can cut fossil fuel subsidies, close corporate tax loopholes and create more progressive income tax policies.

4. A recent carbon tax proposal in Washington state has been crafted to address critiques made by labor, environmental, and environmental justice communities. Does Food & Water Watch support this effort?

While it is encouraging that carbon tax supporters in the state have listened to criticism of their earlier proposal, it remains a fundamentally flawed approach to carbon regulation.

The current version of the tax relies on the same misguided premise that we see in the failed British Columbia carbon tax: The idea that some nominal increases in the prices of carbon-based fuels would drive consumers to reduce their consumption. The problem is that the vast majority of consumers do not have an option to stop heating their homes, or stop driving to work or school in the morning. In that case, emissions don’t fall, but prices still rise.

Instead of a fee-and-dividend model, the new Washington plan includes only a small carve out allotting resources to develop renewable energy projects in low-income communities.

The current proposal also allows utilities to collect the tax revenue paid by customers, and use that revenue to reduce carbon emissions. While this seems like a reasonable approach to encourage investment in clean energy technologies, the problem is that this investment will go towards emissions reductions, instead of eliminating them entirely. This envisions a world where emissions are never eliminated, since doing so would eliminate an income stream for the utilities (see question three above.)

And the current Washington tax proposal exempts any coal plant set to shut down by 2025 from the state’s carbon taxes. Subjecting gas plants to a tax, while exempting coal, could actually boost the use of coal.  

5. While direct emission reductions and a transition to 100% renewable energy are preferable policies, a carbon tax is more politically viable. Shouldn’t we try to pass carbon pricing while we can?

There is no reason to believe that this political analysis is correct; the failure of carbon tax state bills and a ballot initiative in Washington are instructive.

Beyond that, we should not support weak or ineffective policies just because someone believes they stand a better chance of passing. When Food & Water Watch was the first national organization to call for a ban on fracking, we were called politically naive and unrealistic. Like the call for 100% renewable electricity, the call for a ban on fracking was based on the world we need, not the way the political winds were blowing. Since then, as a movement, we’ve accomplished so much: we have been able to pass fracking bans in Vermont, New York, and Maryland, have introduced legislation in Congress to ban fracking in the United States, and even had a major party presidential candidate support a fracking ban.

The movement for 100% renewable energy is similarly gaining momentum. Over 30 members of Congress have supported the OFF Act, and over 100 people running for Congress have committed to sponsoring the legislation if elected in November. State legislatures in at least six states (Maryland, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey) have bills to transition to 100% renewable electricity, and dozens of municipalities have made 100% renewable commitments.

And there’s strong evidence that the public wants to see bold action. Polling from Gallup shows much stronger support for renewable energy and strict emission controls than for a carbon tax among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Ready to support bold climate action? We know we are.

Tell the Biden Administration that our future MUST be fracking-free. Our existence depends on it.