Energy & Environment

Merkley, Warren and Markey sound alarm over 'dirty' hydrogen provision in climate deal

A trio of Democratic senators are sounding an alarm over what they say is an effort to add language to the budget reconciliation bill that would create new incentives for hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, which they fear would undercut the broader goals of climate legislation. 

"As policymakers, we must be attentive to the reality that not all hydrogen is clean and reject efforts to further subsidize dirty hydrogen in the Build Back Better Act," Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to Democratic leaders released Wednesday afternoon.

They argued that while hydrogen has been touted as a "zero-emission" alternative energy source, "recent peer reviewed science has found that fossil fuel-based hydrogen might have greater greenhouse gas impacts than traditional fossil fuels."

The lawmakers acknowledged that hydrogen might someday be an important source of clean energy but asserted the technology isn't ready yet.

"There's just one problem: Current hydrogen production is not at all 'clean.' In fact, 94 percent of hydrogen produced in the [United States] comes from fossil fuels," the lawmakers wrote in the letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

A group of House progressives also signed the letter, including Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). 

They noted that so-called green hydrogen, which is made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules and is therefore considered 100 percent renewable, accounts for less than 0.02 percent of global hydrogen production.

They warned that blue hydrogen, which is produced from splitting natural gas into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, pollutes the atmosphere as much as or more than traditional fossil fuels.

"Blue hydrogen production may result in higher methane emissions than natural gas, diesel, oil, and coal," they wrote. "This is an extremely important finding because 'we cannot achieve the Paris Agreement targets without immediately reducing methane,' according to a United Nations report published this year."

The lawmakers also warned that hydrogen harvested from a process known as steam methane reformation emits nitrogen oxides, particulates and carbon monoxide, which have all been linked to negative health effects. 

"The expansion of fossil-fuel based hydrogen would inevitably harm disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color because these are the same communities which have carried the weight of fossil fuel pollution for generations," they wrote.

A group of environmental organizations, including Food & Water Watch, 350.org, Alliance for Affordable Energy, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, Ocean Conservancy and the Sierra Club, also endorsed the letter.

Food & Water Watch took the lead in circulating a letter to Pelosi last month in which a coalition of environmental groups warned that new research from scientists at Cornell and Stanford shows how hydrogen produced from fossil fuels could have larger greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

Updated 10/28 1:29 p.m. 

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