Op-ed: We don’t have time for another fossil fuel bridge


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In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama hailed natural gas as “the transitional fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution that causes climate change.”

The shift from coal to gas was a key pillar of Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce climate emissions, which major environmental groups have aligned to praise and defend. We now know that methane, the main component of natural gas, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. We know that gas power plants are, at best, a marginal improvement over coal. Today, wind and solar are the cheapest sources of new generation of energy. The struggle has largely shifted from coal to gas.

Some energy companies and utilities still see gas as a bridge to enable more renewables, filling in the gaps when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Others – including the oil and gas industry, the Biden administration and, inexplicably, many large green groups – are laying the groundwork for a new bridge, touting the climate benefits of two dubious strategies: use and carbon storage (CCUS) and hydrogen.

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Many of the voices that support the capture of carbon and hydrogen as new climate solutions are the same voices that fought for the natural gas bridge a decade ago. And, again, they lead us down the wrong path, bridging decades of additional emissions as we quickly run out of time to avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change.

As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made clear, we don’t have time for another fossil fuel bridge.

The carbon capture boondoggle

Research on carbon sequestration at Idaho National Laboratory. (Credit: Idaho National Laboratory / flickr)

The use and storage of carbon capture involves removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, either at the source of production such as a power plant, or directly from the air around us, and either by l ‘using for other purposes, either by storing it underground, ideally forever. More than one watch group has described carbon capture as a mess, and for good reason. The federal government has pumped billions into failed carbon capture projects, and the new infrastructure plan and reconciliation process is about to inject tens of billions more.

One after another, these projects experienced delays and cost overruns, missed emission reduction targets and ultimately failed. The few successful carbon capture projects still in operation make extensive use of the captured carbon for improved oil recovery processes and are paid for the purported climate benefit of CO2 burial.

Carbon capture is an expensive and energy intensive process. Even if successful, carbon capture in power plants and industrial facilities will never eliminate all CO2 emissions released on sites. In addition, carbon capture does nothing to combat the emissions of harmful co-pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) or upstream emissions due to methane leaks during the extraction and transportation of natural gas. . In fact, because carbon capture requires more fossil fuels to generate the same amount of energy, it exacerbates both of these problems. Researchers at Cornell University and Stanford University have discovered that the production of hydrogen by carbon capture, generating so-called “blue” hydrogen, would result in more greenhouse gas emissions than combustion. direct gas or coal to generate heat.

The use and storage elements of carbon capture are also problematic. A recent study from the University of Michigan found that most uses of captured CO2 would result in a net climate burden, resulting in higher emissions than they would avoid. Permanent CO2 storage has yet to be proven, with fears that the leaks could negate many of the process’s purported climate benefits.

Delay action against climate change via hydrogen

Hydrogen presents another emission-laden path forward. Today, around 99% of hydrogen is produced by fossil fuel intensive processes, resulting in gray hydrogen or, when combined with carbon capture, blue hydrogen. The only emission-free way to produce hydrogen is the electrolysis of water supplied directly by renewable energies.

The fossil fuel industry has been successful in its lobbying and marketing campaign to group blue and green hydrogen under the nickname “clean” hydrogen. The industry and its supporters are promoting the benefits of green hydrogen, while planning to increase the production of blue hydrogen as a cheaper solution in the short term – using more gas and emitting more gas to it. greenhouse effect along the way.

Concerns over blue hydrogen led Chris Jackson to step down as chairman of the UK’s leading hydrogen industry association, saying: “I passionately believe that I would betray future generations by remaining silent on the fact that blue hydrogen is a costly distraction at best, and at worst, a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that ensures we fail to meet our decarbonization goals. “

Hydrogen is sold to policy makers and the public as a solution to reduce the carbon footprint of hard to reach sectors, such as high temperature industrial processes and shipping. But that is not what happens in practice. Instead, utilities are rushing to mix low levels of hydrogen into natural gas pipelines, citing nominal reductions in carbon emissions as an excuse to keep building new pipelines and power plants and delay electrification. areas that we already know how to decarbonize, such as heating and light transport.

It’s a classic bait and switch, delaying climate action and blocking decades of additional greenhouse gas emissions and continued air pollution.

Deep decarbonization will come from renewable energies

The best climate strategy we have is to fully engage in the rapid scale-up of solutions that we already know will work – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, battery storage, energy efficiency, demand management. . We already have the tools to achieve deep decarbonization. Now is not the time to throw billions of dollars down another fossil fuel bridge to nowhere.

The use and storage of carbon and hydrogen are not the technologies we need today or tomorrow. If anything, they should be end of line solutions when all other options have been exhausted. They should only be a bridge of last resort.

Seth Mullendore is Vice President and Project Director for Clean Energy Group, where he leads projects ranging from advancing customer solar and battery storage in underserved communities to replacing power plants with clean technology.

Banner photo: Advanced Carbon Capture Technology (PACT) facility in Beighton, Yorkshire. (Credit: Ministry of Energy and Climate Change)

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