The American Petroleum Institute (API) recently released a report on the potential role Blue Hydrogen could play in a future low-carbon economy. Blue Hydrogen is the process of producing hydrogen from natural gas, whose dominant ingredient is methane, and utilizing carbon capture and sequestration. So, while the hydrogen would be produced from fossil fuels, the emitted carbon would ostensibly be captured and permanently sequestered.
Pipelines are critical to the entire life cycle of Blue Hydrogen production. Natural gas would be transported from points of production to a hydrogen production facility via a system of pipelines. The emitted carbon from the hydrogen production process would be captured and moved through a pipeline to a sequestration site. The produced hydrogen would be transported to its end user, often by pipeline.
Blue Hydrogen is of particular interest to the Pipeline Safety Trust as it brings three of our biggest current safety priorities into one system:
- Methane emissions from pipelines
- Carbon dioxide pipeline safety
- Hydrogen pipeline safety
The first thing I looked for in the 160-page API Blue Hydrogen report was a discussion of the safety of such a scheme, given the known safety issues with CO2 pipelines and Hydrogen pipelines. I found no discussion of safety. The second thing I looked for was a discussion of leaks, because, safety issues aside, the effectiveness of Blue Hydrogen’s mitigation of climate change is directly linked to the leakage rates of methane and hydrogen. There is no discussion of leaks. It is deeply disappointing to read a report like this and find that it has ignored basic questions. So, let’s look at each of these components from a pipeline safety perspective.
First, our natural gas pipeline system, from gathering lines to the distribution system, leaks – a lot. And as leak detection technology advances, the estimate of the leak rate continues to increase. Given that methane, the primary component of natural gas, has over 80 times the warming power of CO2 in its first 20 years, many current leak estimates eliminate entirely the climate benefit of using natural gas over coal. It is currently not illegal to leak and vent methane into the atmosphere from natural gas pipelines. Not only is it not illegal but given FERC’s “lost and unaccounted for gas” policy in rate-setting, operators get paid for any leaked or vented methane, ultimately by the end user – often people using natural gas to heat their homes – and are therefore not incentivized to limit these leaks. We are hopeful that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) will pass new rules that will require operators to find and fix all leaks and minimize the intentional venting of methane from pipelines into the atmosphere. But those new rules will take years to develop and adopt, could be hamstrung by statutory limitations such as a cost-benefit analysis, and may not apply to some of the worst leakers like gas gathering lines.
The next component of this Rube Goldberg scheme that is Blue Hydrogen is Carbon Capture and Sequestration. After the harrowing Denbury CO2 pipeline failure in Satartia, Miss. that sent nearly 50 people to the hospital, the Pipeline Safety Trust commissioned a report on the unique safety risks and regulatory gaps of CO2 pipelines. Carbon Dioxide is an asphyxiant and heavier than air, meaning that in the case of a pipeline failure, CO2 can stay close to the ground and, depending on terrain and weather, move large distances at dangerous and even fatal concentrations. Thanks to the generous expansion of the 45Q tax credit, the CO2 pipeline network looks to be poised for explosive growth. Meanwhile, due to minimum safety standards that don’t fully address the unique risks posed by CO2, we are far from prepared for this buildout. For example, some of the new proposed projects wouldn’t be regulated at all due to the narrow definition of CO2 in the PHMSA regulations. We still have large knowledge gaps as to the best kind of steel to limit fracture propagation, the most accurate plume dispersion models to determine potential impact areas, and the most effective odorant to add to the pipeline to alert people to a failure. PST remains steadfast that these pipelines are inherently dangerous and remarkably underregulated.
And finally, once the hydrogen is produced, it needs to be transported to its end-use location. Hydrogen pipelines pose their own set of unique safety risks compared to natural gas/methane. Hydrogen has a much larger flammability range (4-75% concentration in air vs. 5-15% for methane), has a lower autoignition temperature, burns much hotter, and is incredibly leaky due to its small molecular size and “slippery” properties. This means Hydrogen will leak and explode more than methane. On top of all this, hydrogen is an indirect greenhouse gas; it amplifies methane’s warming effect and ends up being 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 in its first 20 years.
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently published a peer-reviewed study on Blue Hydrogen that assumed leakage rates of 4% for methane and 10% for hydrogen, entirely reasonable estimates. With those assumptions, the authors estimated that Blue Hydrogen would lead to an increase in warming of 25%. Combining the safety risks of hydrogen and CO2 pipelines with hydrogen’s role as an indirect greenhouse gas makes us at PST ask, “Why?” Blue Hydrogen would put our communities at greater risk and potentially increase planetary warming, it seems a ludicrous scheme to undertake. API’s recent cheerleading report would have a lot more credibility if it had addressed Blue Hydrogen’s fundamental issues.