Coal ambassador Joe Manchin is becoming a big “clean” hydrogen champion

Coal by any other name…
Coal by any other name…
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Joe Manchin has a vision of West Virginia’s path to a green economy—and it is paved with coal and gas.

The Democratic senator from West Virginia is known for his financial ties to the coal industry, and for tanking the passage of Build Back Better, US president Joe Biden’s social spending and climate bill. He did however help push through an Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that includes $9.5 billion in research and development for hydrogen.

In the opening remarks Manchin delivered at the US Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Shot Summit shortly after the act cleared the Senate in August, Manchin emphasized the role of both renewable hydrogen and fossil fuel-derived hydrogen in the projects to be developed. Speaking about a “shared responsibility to address climate change,” he said that ”we’ve got to do it through innovation, not elimination.”

Manchin’s hydrogen ambitions for West Virginia

This month, Manchin, along with Republican colleagues from his state, launched a proposal for a West Virginia Hydrogen Hub. The infrastructure act earmarks $8 billion to develop four hydrogen production hubs through 2026.

In 2020, West Virginia was the second largest coal producer in the US, and a major producer of natural gas, according to the US government’s Energy Information Administration. The hub, if granted, would be using both to produce hydrogen.

David McKinley, a Republican congressman from West Virginia, who partnered with Manchin on the proposal, said the hub would “make West Virginia and the Appalachian region a center for breakthroughs in hydrogen, which will create good jobs and allow us to leverage our existing natural gas and coal resources.”

Why does the fossil-fuel industry back “clean” hydrogen?

The fossil fuel industry is actively lobbying for hydrogen as a climate-friendly fuel by conflating the real benefits of green hydrogen with black, grey, and blue hydrogen, which allow them to continue using their reserves of coal and natural gas.

When used in fuel cells, hydrogen emits nothing but water vapor and warm air. However, it’s how the hydrogen itself is produced that results in widely varying levels of CO2 emissions. Clean hydrogen, as defined by the infrastructure act, is hydrogen made from any fuel that emits 2 kg or less of CO2 for every kilogram of hydrogen produced, which would include green hydrogen or a fossil fuel-based hydrogen in which 80-90% of the emissions are captured and stored.

Green hydrogen is produced in electrolysers, which uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. When electrolysers are powered by wind or solar energy, carbon isn’t emitted to produce the hydrogen, delivering on its promise of being better for the environment than fossil fuels. While green hydrogen production is growing quickly, for now, it is being produced in tiny quantities.

When hydrogen is made using coal power, each kilo of hydrogen produced results in 18–20 kg of C02 emissions, according to a study cited by the industry outlet Recharge. Gray hydrogen, produced from natural gas, emits 8-12 kg of CO2 for every kilo of hydrogen produced.

By comparison, burning gasoline emits about 3.5 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) for every kilogram burned. Fossil fuel-derived hydrogen results in two to six times more emissions than burning fossil fuels directly.

Blue hydrogen is gray hydrogen, but with some of the emissions captured using carbon capture systems, and it is the type of hydrogen being pushed by the fossil fuel industry. However, the combination of uncaptured CO2 emissions and methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) leaked in the production process means that blue hydrogen emits only about 9–12% less than gray hydrogen, according to an August 2021 study by researchers at Cornell and Stanford universities.

Wins and losses in hydrogen lobbying

In recent years hydrogen has gained prominence, in part because of a hydrogen lobby pushing blue hydrogen uptake in government decarbonization plans.

According to the Hydrogen Council, a Brussels-based lobbying group, there are more than 350 hydrogen projects around the world, with investments totaling an estimated $500 billion into 2030. An August 2021 report (pdf) by Corporate Europe Observatory, a watchdog organization in Brussels, tracked hydrogen lobbyists’ influence across EU decarbonization policies.

But not everyone is playing along. In August 2021, Chris Jackson, the head of a London-based hydrogen lobbying group, UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, quit over the issue of blue hydrogen.

“I believe passionately that I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on that fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals,” Jackson wrote in a LinkedIn post about his resignation.