Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Blue smoke against black background
Credit: Damon Lam for Unsplash

The blue hydrogen economy is big news. Promises of tax revenue and large federal grants have legislators and leaders touting blue hydrogen as the answer to New Mexico’s economic growth, wellbeing and climate woes. Some predict it will be a major part of our lives as we move towards zero net carbon.

What blue hydrogen actually may do is allow the fossil fuel industry to continue business as usual.

Decisions that leaders make in the next few years will have a lasting effect for generations to come. Blue hydrogen is being aggressively pushed upon our policymakers by fossil fuel lobbyists whose goals are profit driven rather than climate driven. According to research scientists, by investing in blue hydrogen we can wave goodbye to any prospect of keeping atmospheric warming at the levels needed for the planet’s ecosystems.

Hydrogen production comes in four different colors:

-Green hydrogen – a product of electrolysis of water that splits the h2o into hydrogen and oxygen

-Brown or black hydrogen – from the gasification of coal, releasing hydrogen and carbon dioxide

-Gray hydrogen  – obtained by steam methane reforming (SMR). It involves bombarding natural gas with high pressure steam to force the methane to separate into carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

-Blue hydrogen – brand-new category developed by the fossil fuel industry

Blue hydrogen is simply a rebranding of gray hydrogen, except the production facility operators have promised to responsibly capture all the carbon dioxide emitted and store it. There is little experience on a large commercial scale with storing carbon dioxide from carbon capture. Most carbon dioxide that’s currently captured is used for an enhanced oil recovery process that liberates CO2 that had been safely locked up underground for millions of years and spews it straight back out into the atmosphere. Carbon capture might not be such a great idea, say researchers.

In a peer-reviewed scientific research paper called “How green is blue hydrogen?” published in the Energy Science and Engineering Journal in August 2021, Cornell and Stanford University researchers found blue hydrogen may actually harm the climate more than burning fossil fuel. Researchers looked at the entire lifecycle of greenhouse gas emissions from blue hydrogen. According to the report they produced, the process of making blue hydrogen takes a large amount of energy, which is generally provided by burning more natural gas.

“The greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20 percent greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60 percent greater than burning diesel oil for heat,” according to the report. Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell, and Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, authored the report.

“In the past, no effort was made to capture the carbon dioxide, a byproduct of gray hydrogen, and the greenhouse gas emissions have been huge,” Howarth said. “Now the industry promotes blue hydrogen as a solution, an approach that still uses the methane from natural gas, while attempting to capture the byproduct carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, emissions remain very large.”

The methane emission in the creation of blue hydrogen is actually higher than gray hydrogen because the vast majority of processing plants will use their supply of natural gas to provide the power for the carbon capture process. That means more natural gas is being used and more emissions occur as a result.

Blue hydrogen is being lauded as a clean, green energy to help reduce global warming. Even progressive politicians may not understand what they’re voting for. Howarth concludes that political forces have not caught up with science. “Blue hydrogen sounds good, sounds modern and sounds like a path to our energy future. It is not,” he said.