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Energy leaders at Houston summit should embrace energy and climate security

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World energy leaders gathering in Houston for the CERA Week energy conference — a premier event on the industry calendar — will find themselves at a crossroads. They enthuse about transformational new solutions to stave off disruptive effects of a warming planet, but also talk up increased oil and gas production to meet growing global demand.

The unifying factor, of course, is fossil fuel dependence. There simply is no way of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change while continuing to use coal, oil or gas at anywhere near today’s levels. And considering how volatile global prices and supply have been, why would we want to — how many more crises do we need before deciding that the only strategic response is a fundamentally different course?

But in seeking solutions, we should not swap one set of bad options for another. The halls of CERA Week will likely be buzzing about hydrogen as the one-way ticket out of our climate and energy conundrum: abundant, clean, ready to power our cars, heat our homes and able to generate electricity on demand to balance out wind and solar. In short, everything fossil fuels do today, without the pesky pollution.

Virtually all the hydrogen produced today comes from the very fossil fuels it is supposed to replace, with the greenhouse emissions going straight into the atmosphere. Many believe we can simply capture the carbon dioxide released when making hydrogen from natural gas and stash it underground. But that’s neither easy nor cheap — and the result might not be much cleaner than simply burning the gas.

Others are looking to “green” hydrogen, extracted from water using renewably generated electricity. But that process is expensive too, and despite continued growth in wind and solar, demand for renewable electricity still far exceeds supply. For uses like heating and cooking or powering cars and trucks, we’d get far greater climate benefit at much less cost to consumers using that green electricity directly.

No matter how it’s made, hydrogen has its own potent warming effects in the atmosphere — a fact widely overlooked until recently, even by many experts. Moreover, hydrogen molecules are very small and uniquely challenging to contain. That’s one reason I am very concerned about proposals to start moving hydrogen through today’s leak-prone natural gas systems.

Without concerted effort to monitor and prevent emissions, there’s a real risk that it could be decades before widespread hydrogen use delivers any climate benefits.

Embracing renewably generated electricity for as many uses as possible is key to ending dependence on fossil fuels while still maintaining strong, prosperous economies. But there are important things electricity won’t do — powering airplanes and maritime shipping, or fueling heavy, heat-intensive industries like steel, cement and chemicals. These critical sectors are where hydrogen, produced cleanly and without leaks, could be invaluable.

My message to companies at CERAWeek: Go boldly into the energy transition, but beware of unintended consequences. Producers have spent over a decade grappling methane emissions that were once ignored and are still a long way from solving the problem. It’s a lesson the industry should heed now. We no longer have the time or money to waste on false prospects or dead-end streets.

Believing that hydrogen or some other cure-all will make it possible to drill our way to energy or environmental security — much less both — would be a costly mistake. It’s time to stop thinking of these as competing priorities and start treating them as a singular challenge. Once we do, the solutions will come much more quickly.

Mark Brownstein is senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, and a member of EDF’s executive team. 

Tags Climate change Energy Fossil fuels hydrogen oil and gass Renewable energy

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