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The many colours of hydrogen and the scam of carbon capture

Originally published: Peoples Democracy on September 3, 2023 by Prabir Purkayastha (more by Peoples Democracy)  | (Posted Sep 04, 2023)

THE fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil and natural gas lobby, always has new cards. Earlier, the fossil fuel industry came up with carbon credits: We, the rich countries, will burn coal, oil and natural gas so that we can continue with our current lifestyles but “compensate” by planting trees in poor countries. Creating biological sinks for fixing carbon is a viable solution, but carbon credits, a market-based “solution” for creating carbon sinks, do not work. Recent studies confirm what we have always known: that such market-based solutions are simply a carbon con.

There is a second carbon con that is being pushed by the fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil and natural gas companies. As we know, hydrogen, when burned, produces energy, water and no greenhouse gases. So hydrogen can be a clean fuel for the future. So why is hydrogen being branded as green, blue, brown and grey hydrogen? The dirty secret of the oil industry is that it wants to use natural gas as long as possible, using it to produce hydrogen, which can be “branded” as nature-friendly. It leaves out that producing hydrogen as fuel from natural gas will also lead to large amounts of carbon emissions. Enter the various colours of hydrogen: green, blue or grey hydrogen.


Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysing water, with the electricity coming from renewable energy and, therefore, free from greenhouse gases. Yes, green hydrogen produced by electrolysing water using renewable energy is viable, particularly if we have a surplus in the grid. But any other form of hydrogen — produced using natural gas, oil or coal—produces hydrogen and carbon dioxide. It is called blue hydrogen if it is attached to a carbon capture plant, which then takes out the carbon dioxide.

Looks nifty, right? The fossil fuel industry does not tell you that carbon capture plants also require large amounts of energy. And if this energy is produced from fossil fuels, the net greenhouse output of plants producing blue hydrogen only adds to greenhouse gases. For the oil industry, the reason for separating carbon dioxide from hydrogen is not to reduce greenhouse gases but to reinject it into the oil fields to push more oil and gas out of the ground. Out of the 39 million tonnes of carbon dioxide captured annually, about three-fourths are used for enhanced oil and gas recovery, and only one-fourth are stored underground.

To understand the scale of the problem we are facing, we produce approximately 37 gigatonnes of CO2 annually. Using the carbon capture route, we will have to scale up carbon capture by roughly a million times to reach net zero. We will face a civilisation collapse long before we have reached even a fraction of that capacity.

So why is carbon capture being offered as a solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Carbon capture is a 50-year-old technology. It was suggested as a techno-fix in the 80s to the problem of carbon emissions from power plants and, therefore, global warming. As a technology, there is nothing wrong with it. It works, and yes, we can separate carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases of a coal or a gas-fired thermal power plant. So what is the problem? The problem is that such a separation process also requires energy and large amounts of it. Once we factor in the energy required to separate carbon dioxide from the exhaust gases and the energy required to pump it into long-term reservoirs underground, the economics do not work. It only works if the governments are willing to underwrite its costs almost entirely. Or if a use can be found for the carbon dioxide, for example, in oil fields for improving yields. But that is producing more fossil fuels, which we are supposedly cutting down.

Adding carbon capture for producing electricity from fossil fuels is not economically viable, not at scale, or for the magnitude of the problem we face today. That is why it faded away as a viable energy sector technology after the 80s. It now lives on only as a zombie technology that refuses to die in the various reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and action plans of governments that want to push fossil fuels as long as they can. It is also a part of the U.S. political scene where the oil and gas industry is pushing for continued use of fossil fuels and finds carbon capture technologies as a means of getting free federal funds. Promise carbon capture, get federal money for underwriting carbon capture costs, use it to enhance oil recovery from oil wells, and continue burning fossil fuels, irrespective of whether carbon capture as a technology is economically viable or not.

The history of carbon capture is well-known. So why is it periodically brought out of the closet and presented as a solution to the problem of global warming? I’m not too fond of conspiracy theories in general. But in this case, I have no option but to believe that the fossil fuel industry, particularly in the U.S., has decided that profits today far outweigh the risks to humanity in the future. The current thrust of carbon capture as a solution to continued fossil fuel use, is a strategy to continue burning natural gas, oil and coal. It is business as usual and an exercise of simply greenwashing global warming emissions. It is simply a re-branding exercise of the oil industry, hoping to buy a few more years of further profligate consumption, irrespective of the risks that it carries for all of us.

If this sounds too cynical, well, we have evidence that this is the exact same con that the oil and gas industry has pulled on the world earlier. Exxon Mobil denied climate change for decades, funding naysayers even though their own research had confirmed the truth of global warming as early as the late 70s. I reproduce here what Science, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), commented on a paper by G Supran and two other authors:

For decades, some members of the fossil fuel industry tried to convince the public that a causative link between fossil fuel use and climate warming could not be made because the models used to project warming were too uncertain. Supran et al. show that one of those fossil fuel companies, Exxon Mobil, had its own internal models that projected warming trajectories consistent with those forecast by independent academic and government models. What they understood about climate models thus contradicted what they led the public to believe.

This is the same game that the oil monopolies are playing today as well. The new game is called carbon capture, knowing full well that anything other than biologically capturing carbon is simply not techno-economically viable. The name of the scam might have changed, but the scamsters remain the same.

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