Mid-November, after that Months after hints of an impending bill, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s government sent a draft Hydrogen Hub Act to stakeholders for their input. Initial reactions are not positive.
“Let’s be crystal clear,” says Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, Executive Director of the Western Environmental Law Center, “this bill is not a climate or clean energy bill. It’s a fossil fuel bill. “
The 27-page bill is designed to make New Mexico a national hydrogen production center, and 22 of those pages describe tax incentives and tax breaks to encourage the construction of manufacturing and distribution facilities and other critical infrastructure. The remainder describe how CO2 emissions for hydrogen production must decrease over time and how freshwater cannot be used to make hydrogen if companies receive the tax breaks.
While these physical requirements are not specified directly, they do indicate that the law is clearly aimed at the manufacture and sale of so-called blue hydrogen, which is developed from natural gas. This fuel is already completely unpopular with the state’s environmental contingents as natural gas from oil and gas wells is a major source of greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions.
Hydrogen does not produce carbon emissions when passed through a fuel cell or burned, although when burned it releases nitrogen oxides into the air.
The upcoming state legislature session is a biannual, 30-day event devoted to money issues – but the governor can propose bills on any subject. Lujan Grisham has spoken of the Hydrogen Hub Act as an important piece of law for the upcoming session.
(Neither the governor’s office nor the Department of Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources, which actually distributed the bill, responded to questions for this story.)
The bill hit inboxes the day after Governor Lujan Grisham flew to Washington, DC, to attend President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Employment Bill signing ceremony.
Biden’s law provides $ 8 billion to create four hydrogen production centers across the country, at least two of which are said to be in regions with “the greatest natural gas resources,” according to the wording. In a forum in Farmington, New Mexico earlier this year, Lujan Grisham said she wanted the money to go to the surrounding San Juan Basin, the state’s second largest fossil fuel production area, primarily devoted to natural gas production.
Hydrogen does not produce carbon emissions when passed through a fuel cell or burned (although when burned it releases nitrogen oxides into the air). And one kilogram of it has roughly the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline or diesel. This makes it a great potential replacement fuel for long haul or heavy industry applications.
However, the draft Hydrogen Hub Act specifically requires natural gas suppliers to mix hydrogen into their fuel stream to theoretically lower their greenhouse gas emissions, a process known as hydrogen blending.
One problem with hydrogen is that it takes more energy to split it from either water or natural gas than it provides when it is later converted into energy.
The environmental and health problems of hydrogen arise from its production. A color-coded system describes the different processes and indicates the associated environmental and climate threats. Green hydrogen is made from water and renewable energy, but it is energy-intensive and expensive to produce. Blue hydrogen is made from fossil fuels – usually natural gas – and the carbon waste is sequestered. It’s also energy-intensive, but less expensive. Gray hydrogen is made in the same way, but the carbon is released into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming. This is currently the cheapest and most common method of production in the country.
Another difficulty with hydrogen is that it takes more energy to split it from either water or natural gas than it provides when it is later converted into energy. And the main disadvantage is that producing blue hydrogen as both a raw material and heating fuel requires a lot of natural gas, so overall, even small methane leaks from the gas supply chain can quickly outweigh the benefits of hydrogen.
A mixed hydrogen power plant uses natural gas in three ways: as the main fuel, as a starting material for hydrogen and as a fuel that drives the hydrogen conversion process.
“We’re seeing hydrogen, whatever – blue, green, gray – is a value-added product made from fracking natural gas sources in northwest New Mexico,” said Mario Atencio, a Navajo and legislative assistant at the Navajo Nation Council.
“It’s a non-runner,” he adds.
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Lujan Grisham’s bill for the 2022 legislature appeared seven days after Lujan Grisham returned from a week in Glasgow, Scotland, where she attended the COP26 climate summit. There she promoted the state’s green initiatives, particularly in the fight against methane emissions from oil and gas production. Methane is an important component of natural gas and a powerful greenhouse gas that traps up to 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
These green efforts came from previous signature work. The governor’s third official act after taking office in 2019 was to set up a task force on climate change and oblige the state to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The state has enacted new rules to severely curb emissions from the oil and gas industry, which account for more than 50% of the state’s total emissions.
“I am frustrated and disappointed that a few days after the governor’s return from Glasgow we were sent a poorly thought-out, deeply problematic billing concept for fossil gas,” says Schlenker-Goodrich.
State Sen. Carrie Hamblin (D) is also skeptical about what’s on the bill. “Well, it’s not coal [the dirtiest fossil fuel], but neither is it sun or wind, ”she says. She would prefer to see the expense of these energy sources rather than “an industry that is sold heavily as the second best thing after oil and gas”.
“I think we always have to remember that time is running out and we don’t have time to waste from scratch on these ideas that we don’t fully master,” she adds.
A study earlier this year shows that hydrogen made from natural gas can actually have a larger carbon footprint than just burning the natural gas itself to generate energy.
In public conversations over the past few months, Lujan Grisham and Environment Department Secretary James Kenney have said that new rules by both his department and the state’s Oil Conservation Department should keep methane emissions to an absolute minimum, which should increase the green references of blue hydrogen.
But Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter, says: “Even with the best methane rules, you can’t really reduce CO2 emissions enough to achieve our climate goals in a meaningful way.”
A study from the beginning of this year shows that even with these new government emission targets, hydrogen made from natural gas can actually have a higher carbon footprint than simply burning the natural gas itself to generate energy.
“When you understand that that central tenant at the center of the bill is a false premise,” says Tom Solomon, co-coordinator of 350.org New Mexico, “then you’ve won all of the things you want you to do.” does not happen and you will largely achieve the opposite effect. “
The disappointment in the bill is not just due to simple calculations on the subject of natural gas.
Northwestern New Mexico experienced a decade-long natural gas-powered economy until the 2008 economic crisis and has never fully recovered. In the meantime, two coal-fired power plants and their associated coal mines are said to be closed and then lured back from the dead with various plans to keep them operational. Local and state politicians and some energy companies want to keep the energy they produce, as well as the hundreds of jobs and millions in local revenues they create.
In theory, the Hydrogen Hub Act could give power plant owners tax incentives and write-offs to convert their operations to hydrogen, although simply converting them to natural gas might be less CO2 intensive and cheaper. Or replace them completely with solar or wind power.
The entire area around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park is sacred to the indigenous tribes of the region and is located at the southern end of the San Juan Basin. It is also located on an oil deposit.
“It gets a bit daunting when you’re always like this … a guinea pig for your newest shiny, flashing energy stuff,” says Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
“This is what plagues the San Juan Basin,” he says.
“The most important people influenced by these newfangled ideas are always the very young and the very old,” says Atencio. “And in northwest Mexico, these communities are environmental justice communities.”
Part of the Navajo nation lies on the San Juan Basin, and fossil fuel politics is ubiquitous.
Earlier this month, a spokesman for the state environment ministry said the administration would contact indigenous communities when the bill was further advanced.
Atencio, who thinks of the indigenous people of the area, says: “Not talking to them, not even taking the time to reach out to them, that is a kind of ongoing environmental injustice.”
On the same day the governor’s administration sent the proposed Hydrogen Hub Act to groups in New Mexico, President Biden announced a plan to sign new oil and gas drilling leases on state within a 10-mile buffer of Chaco Culture National Historical Park to stop. The entire area around the park is sacred to the indigenous tribes of the region and is located at the southern end of the San Juan Basin. It is also located on an oil deposit.
Atencio is pleased with the added protection around the Chaco, but believes that if natural gas production increases across the region to create a new hydrogen industry, “the larger Chaco landscape will still be planned as a national sacrifice zone”.
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