Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — California plans green ‘industrial revolution’

California windmills
Madeline Monroe/AP images
California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) told The Hill in an interview that his state “has been leading in this space, usually five, 10, 20 years ahead when it comes to environmental policy.”

California announced sweeping plans on Wednesday to cease all net carbon emissions before midcentury. 

The ambitious new net-zero plan aims to cut oil usage almost entirely by 2045 and greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent in the world’s fourth-largest economy, according to a state fact sheet. 

In doing so, it aims to “spur an economic transformation akin to the industrial revolution,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a statement. 

It’s a fraught comparison: The factories of the industrial revolution were the nurseries of the fossil fuel age — the source of the climate disruption that California is seeking to avert. 

Liane Randolph of the state’s powerful Air Resources Board linked the two phenomena in comments to reporters. 

“We need to take action to reduce the worst impacts of a changing climate,” Randolph said, according to public radio station KQED. 

The only one way to do that is to “break forever our dependance on fossil fuels, the harsh grip of petroleum, and move as fast as we can to a clean energy economy,” she added. 

Doing so will require an eye-watering effort — the flip side of which is 4 million new jobs, according to the state. 

A rough road map: The state will have to double its existing electric generation capacity, quadruple its wind and solar capacity and add millions of new electric cars, per KQED. 

Prescribed burns of forests and wildlands — a key part of preventing destructive unplanned fire — will have to increase tenfold by 2025 and nearly 25-fold by 2045, the Los Angles Times reported. 

That has forced compromises. In a controversial bid that has angered many citizen groups, the plan also relies upon a massive scale up unproven carbon capture and storage technology to trap emissions from fossil fuels, the Times noted. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. I’m Saul Elbein. Send tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you?

Today we’ll look at why the U.N. climate conference seems to be ending without a deal to end oil production. Then, we‘ll survey a new scheme to power New York City in part with clean hydrogen. Then: how the oil and gas industry has muddled the science on hydrogen. 

COP27 delegates can’t quit oil

The United Nations’s climate agency on Thursday published a first-draft agreement for the COP27 climate summit, our colleague Zack Budryk reported

  • The draft includes language keeping the average global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees. 
  • But it omits language — pushed for by India — of a phase-down of fossil fuels. 

Losing loss and damage: While the language says it “welcomes” the inclusion for the first time on “loss and damages” funds for nations on the front lines of climate change, it contains no details of how the funds would operate. 

  • While global south countries had hoped for more, “loss and damage” has never made it into draft language before. 
  • What that vague language means will be the subject of contentious debate among wealthier nations about specific financial responsibilities. 

Cutting coal but not oil: Also absent from the draft agreement was any language around the importance of getting the world off fossil fuels.

  • India’s representatives had lobbied for language committing to the phase out of “unabated” fossil fuels. 
  • This would still have left open the possibility of using fossil fuels in combination with still-unproven methods like carbon capture, which would trap planet-warming carbon dioxide as it leaves smokestacks. 

Loophole for coal: The draft limits calls for a fossil-fuel phase-out to language about accelerating “measures towards the phase down of unabated coal power.”  

  • That “unabated coal power” language leaves open the possibility of continued coal use, if emissions are somehow trapped. 
  • But the fuel is already being outcompeted financially by clean energy even without added restrictions. 

Scoping out subsidies: The draft agreement also calls for governments to “phase out and rationalize inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”  

Delaying departure: A plan for the rapid exit from fossil fuels is a measure viewed as essential by the International Energy Agency and at least possible by Western powers like the U.S., U.K and EU. 

But it is unacceptable to oil-dependent governments like Saudi Arabia, a keystone member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). 

  • OPEC is banking on surging fossil fuel production through 2045, as we reported. 
  • The cartel predicts $12.1 trillion of future investment into the sector by 2045. 
  • The International Energy Agency has urged no new investment in fossil fuels, as our colleague Rachel Frazin reported. 

How it landed: Greenpeace Asia slammed the draft in a statement, saying it largely reiterates the provisions of the 2021 agreement rather than expanding on it, Budryk reported. 

  • “The draft text is an abdication of responsibility to capture the urgency expressed by many countries to see all oil and gas added to coal for at least a phase down,” Yeb Saño, Greenpeace International’s COP27 head of delegation, said in a statement.
  • “It is time to end the denial, the fossil fuel age must be brought to a rapid end.” 

Green hydrogen to help power New York 

The bright lights of Manhattan will soon be at least partially powered by zero-carbon green hydrogen, produced and burned in a New Jersey power plant. 

  • Green hydrogen is pulled from feedstocks other than fossil fuels by means of renewable power. 
  • Unlike the fossil fuels it replaces, the only emission when hydrogen combusts is water vapor.

Note of caution: While burning hydrogen produces no direct carbon dioxide emissions, it remains highly controversial among scientists and clean energy advocates — even when produced from clean energy.  

Going deeper: New Jersey’s Bayonne Energy Center — which supplies power to New York City via cables under the Hudson River — will convert one of its turbines to run on green hydrogen, according to a press statement. 

  • Proponents say it offers a zero-carbon means of meeting “peaks” in electricity demand, particularly at times wind and solar supplies are low. 
  • The project will cost an estimated $150 million and be online by 2025.  

How’s it’s made: Hydrogen companies NovoHydrogen and Ohmium International will collaborate to install a “hydrolyzer” — which strips hydrogen atoms from water — to produce zero-carbon fuel that can be fed into the usually gas-powered turbines. 

Limited use: Even green hydrogen has serious problems and should only be used where electrification and batteries don’t make sense, according to a letter published on Wednesday in the journal Nature. 

  • “If hydrogen were freely available, it would be something of a decarbonization wonder. The problem is that hydrogen is not freely available,” the authors wrote. 
  • Hydrogen is almost exclusively found bound up in other, more complex molecules, “from which it must be extracted at huge energetic cost,” they added.

Wasting energy: Green hydrogen doesn’t produce carbon emissions — unlike the vast majority of hydrogen produced today, the scientists noted. 

But because producing green hydrogen requires far more wind and solar power than can be released by burning it, it is almost always more efficient to use clean electricity directly wherever possible, the scientists found. 

  • That means that hydrogen makes the most sense for hard-to-decarbonize sectors, like heavy transport. 
  • It doesn’t really make sense for applications where you can use electricity, like heating or personal vehicles. 

“Hydrogen should be used judiciously, to address emissions that can’t be eliminated in other ways,” they noted. 

Bridging the gap: Using hydrogen for peak electric power — as the New York plan intends to do — straddles the necessary and wasteful, according to a 2020 report in Bloomberg New Energy Finance. 

  • Up to 90 percent of electric demand can ultimately be met by wind and solar power – but that leaves a shortfall of at least 10 percent. 
  • Green hydrogen — stored continuously and in massive quantities wherever and whenever possible — is “the only solution that can provide deep resilience to the highly electrified net-zero economy of the future.” 


Scientists are crying foul over a University of Massachusetts Lowell study that found that green hydrogen could be safely and easily blended with natural gas for lower-emission heating, The Boston Globe reported. 

  • The findings go against a large body of research that suggests that there are big risks and bigger expenses from running leaky and explosive hydrogen gas through ordinary pipes. 
  • The authors don’t disclose the fact that their funding came from the natural gas and pipeline industry.  

Lobbyists from the gas industry — which views hydrogen as a potentially industry-saving technology — also substantially rewrote the report, the Globe found. 

Scientific criticism: “This should not have been published in a peer reviewed journal as it is, because I think the presentation is biased, slanted, and misleading in a way that’s hard to defend academically,” said ecology professor and hydrogen expert Robert Howarth of Cornell University. 

Suspicious science: The study illustrates a trend in which studies funded by the gas industry consistently find a role for hydrogen in home heating — which independent studies don’t, according to a paper published in physics journal Joule.  

  • “There are at least as many industry-funded studies as there are independent ones,” said author Jan Rosenow, who is also the European program director of the Regulatory Assistance Project 
  • ”To my own astonishment I found that of the studies I identified as independent, not one suggests that hydrogen for heating, at least at scale, is a sensible, economic choice,” Rosenow added. 

Thursday Threats

The war in Ukraine is deterring other countries from phasing out fossil fuels, banks funding Amazon oil drilling may face legal and social risks and the communications firm for COP27 has a long history with Big Oil. 

Ukraine war dissuades membership in oil-exit alliance 

  • The ongoing energy shocks from the Russian invasion of Ukraine have stymied efforts to recruit new members to a coalition of countries that have committed to ending oil and gas development within their borders, Reuters reported. While Portugal committed to joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance at this year’s COP27, no major fossil fuel producers have yet been willing to join the group, according to Reuters. 

Indigenous leaders demand banks stop funding drilling in Amazon 

  • Leaders of the Achuar and Wampis peoples of the Peruvian Amazon will meet with representatives of Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Citibank and JP Morgan — who they will warn against funding Peru’s state oil company, Petroperu, the Guardian reported. The company “does not act responsibly and has left environmental damage in our territory,” which means funding it carries social and legal risks, Achuar leader Nelton Yankur told the Guardian. 

COP27 communications firm has long history of greenwashing 

  • The public relations firm running U.N. climate conference communications for Egypt has a long history of lobbying for the oil and gas industry against climate regulations, CNBC reported. “There is almost no more inappropriate agency to bring on to lead communications for a climate summit,” campaign director Duncan Meisel of Clean Creatives — which advocates against PR involvement with Big Oil — told CNBC.  

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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