Joe Biden giving a speech.

Biden Just Awarded $7 Billion for the Creation of Hydrogen Hubs, so What Exactly Are They?

President Biden recently announced that his administration was awarding $7 billion for the creation of Hydrogen Hubs (H2Hubs) across the country. These seven hubs—the Appalachian Hydrogen Hub, California Hydrogen Hub, Gulf Coast Hydrogen Hub, Heartland Hydrogen Hub, Midwest Hydrogen Hub, and Mid Atlantic Hydrogen Hub—are being promoted by the Biden administration as answers to the climate crisis. But what exactly are these hydrogen hubs that are receiving so much public funding? 

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Biden and the fossil fuel industry are promoting H2Hubs as a new source of green energy, so-called “clean hydrogen.”  As you may recall from chemistry class, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, the stuff the sun and stars are made of. But does its ubiquity make it a good choice for our future energy source? 

While hydrogen may be plentiful, using it as an energy source results in a lot of pollution. Hydrogen can be converted into energy in a few different ways, but 95% of hydrogen energy is created by a process called the “steam methane reforming process” (SMR). This process involves heating methane at high temperatures with steam in order to break it down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main source of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate crisis. The hydrogen production process (SMR) is one that also produces a lot of carbon. A breakdown of the emission numbers suggests that hydrogen production will have a greater carbon footprint than a natural gas plant. 

The companies behind the push for hydrogen hubs, the ones just awarded millions of dollars include Exxon, Chevron, and Shell. Coal baron and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is also a supporter of the hydrogen hub plan. These supporters signal a basic underlying fact of the hydrogen hub plan: it will NOT put the fossil fuel industry out of business. Instead, it will augment their business and let them rebrand their fossil fuel products as something new and environmentally friendly. Environmental groups have called this out as corporate greenwashing.

The industry’s answer to all the carbon created by the hydrogen production process is a scheme called carbon capture and sequestration. The idea is to make the carbon useful as an energy source instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. But carbon capture comes with its own set of problems, and in fact, it’s nothing new. The fossil fuel industry has been trying to sell this scheme for decades. Back in the ’70s, this idea was being sold as “enhanced oil recovery.” While the greenwashing labels may have changed, the threats to the planet and public health have not.

Investment in carbon capture would mean the creation of new pipelines and expansion of existing pipelines. Carbon pipelines are currently unregulated. Like all pipelines, they are prone to leaks but carbon leaks are uniquely dangerous. 

Because carbon is odorless, leaks can go undetected. This is what happened in a small Mississippi community where at least 45 people were hospitalized and over 200 people were evacuated after community members began passing out in their homes, outdoors, behind the wheels of their cars. Because carbon dioxide interferes with internal combustion, first responders could not reach the people impacted by the leak. Community members of this Mississippi town have reported ongoing health problems due to their exposure to this asphyxiant. 

Events like this are likely to continue if carbon capture expands because it is difficult to remove water from CO2 and with any amount of water present, carbon is corrosive and will eat through pipelines.  Because carbon would be piped at high pressure, new compressor stations would be needed. Compressor stations also pose risks to the communities where they are sites. Like pipelines, compressor stations are vulnerable to leaks and even to explosions.

In addition to the problem of the carbon byproduct made in creating hydrogen for energy, the hydrogen production process is also extremely wasteful when it comes to water use. Creating hydrogen requires millions of gallons of water, even in places where water is scarce. Real renewable sources like wind and solar do not have this same water demand problem. In some places, the construction of desalination plants would be needed to meet hydrogen production needs. These desalination plants would be both expensive and dangerous to marine life.

In 2020, Biden ran for office on pledges to move away from fossil fuels. Many, including youth organizers and frontline community members whose futures are immensely impacted, continue to pressure him to keep that promise. Unfortunately, the $7 billion dollars for hydrogen hubs seems like more of the same—a complicated rebranding of fossil fuel dependency in a way that nets us very little energy and poses enormous risks to the planet and public health.

(featured image: Rebecca Noble/Getty Images)

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