A Debate Rages Over the Putative Environmental Benefits of the ARCH2 ‘Hydrogen Hub’ in Appalachia

Backers of a planned “hydrogen hub”’ in the Appalachian region have issued a document responding to criticism by environmentalists, saying that carbon capture and sequestration technology would mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from the project and that the hydrogen it produced would ultimately protect “environmental justice” communities from pollution currently emitted by heavy industry. 

The project, which would produce, distribute and consume hydrogen in West Virginia, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, plans to make so-called blue hydrogen from natural gas by combining it with steam at a high temperature and pressure, a commonly used process called “reforming” that creates most of the world’s industrial hydrogen. 

Instead of being released into the atmosphere, where it would warm the climate, the carbon dioxide produced by burning the natural gas would be pumped underground and permanently stored using carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a process that critics say is unproven and expensive.

Leaders of the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) rebutted claims that CCS would fail to prevent the escape of carbon dioxide from blue-hydrogen production, and said the United States is the world leader in the technology, with about two-thirds of global capacity.

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“CCS technologies encompass the capture of CO2 at emission sources, followed by its compression, transport and geologic storage,” ARCH2 said in the 24-page Frequently Asked Questions document. “Each has been proven effective as individual components, and as integrated systems at commercial scale in numerous settings.”

ARCH2 is one of seven proposed hydrogen hubs which the Biden administration has funded with up to $7 billion as part of its effort to decarbonize sectors such as long-haul trucking and chemical manufacturing, helping to hit the national clean-energy goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Appalachian hub’s share of the public funding is up to $925 million. 

The project is a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy; state and local governments in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia; academic and technology institutions; community groups; and 15 companies, including the natural gas drillers EQT and CNX. Its leaders say it would create 3,000 permanent jobs and another 18,000 during construction. Overall, the build-out is expected to cost about $6 billion, of which some $5 billion would come from the private sector.

The FAQs respond to a wide range of concerns raised by the public since the hub program was announced in October 2023, and aired in a series of online ‘listening sessions’ held by the U.S. Department of Energy starting in the spring of 2024.

Despite critics’ claims that the production of blue hydrogen will perpetuate the production of natural gas in the energy-rich Appalachian region, ARCH2 leaders say their hydrogen will meet all the requirements of clean hydrogen, as defined by the federal government.

Hydrogen produced by ARCH2 and the other hubs will cut C02 emissions by at least 5 million tons a year, or the equivalent of that produced by 1.1 million gasoline-powered cars, the document said. But the planned carbon cuts by all seven hubs combined would represent less than half of 1 percent of total national CO2 emissions, according to federal data for 2022. 

The new paper also argued the project will address environmental justice concerns in disadvantaged communities that have been harmed by the effects of industrial development such as poor air quality.

It said the production of clean hydrogen will mitigate the impact of past industrial activities, and will comply with the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, which aims to deliver at least 40 percent of federal environmental investments to disadvantaged communities.

ARCH2’s assurances on environmental justice followed comments at a ‘listening session in late March, when all but one of 20 public speakers voiced their opposition to the project.

“It doesn’t matter what we want or what we fear as long as our concerns are never included in the calculus of decision making,” said John Detwiler, a retired engineer representing North Braddock Residents for Our Future, a community group that advocates for environmental justice issues in the heavily polluted Monongahela River area near Pittsburgh.

“To be holding a mere listening session at this point in the process with proposals already in and contracts ready to be awarded just feels like a meaningless gesture or maybe a deliberate slap in the face,” Detwiler said in the 90-minute session.

Other speakers accused the federal government of selling out to the natural gas industry, which has seen strong growth in the Appalachian region since the widespread adoption of fracking, starting in the mid-2000s.

“ARCH2 appears to be another government-subsidized way to let the fracking industry continue to operate despite the known harms of its toxic pollution,” said Leatra Harper, another speaker at the listening session. “Instead of ARCH2, the government should give more incentive for electrification and reduction in energy consumption.”

Kyle McColgan, a spokesman for ARCH2, predicted that opposition to the project will fade as the public understands more about it.

“The concerns expressed during the listening sessions are consistent with those we have heard during other public engagement activities. We are confident that these concerns will diminish as we share more information on our projects and increase our community outreach and engagement efforts post-award,” he said.

“ARCH2 appears to be another government-subsidized way to let the fracking industry continue to operate despite the known harms of its toxic pollution.”

But community opposition persists. Last week, another critic said the FAQ document failed to address his concerns.

“The FAQs offer little or nothing that wasn’t known previously,” said Sean O’Leary, senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit that studies economic development in the region that would include the hub. “ARCH2 continues to be at best vague, sometimes opaque, and occasionally downright disingenuous.”

O’Leary accused ARCH2 of failing to say where it plans to sequester carbon; which pipeline routes it is considering for both captured carbon and generated hydrogen, and how communities can be part of decisions about siting and operations. 

And he charged ARCH2 and the DOE with ignoring concerns that the hub would stimulate increased fracking, which has been accused of harming public health by contaminating drinking water and eroding air quality near natural gas plants. 

David Masur, executive director of the nonprofit PennEnvironment, said he hasn’t seen evidence that blue hydrogen can cut carbon emissions enough to justify its high cost, especially when considering the life-cycle emissions of natural gas from production to distribution to consumption.

ARCH2’s defense of carbon capture fails to compare its expected capacity for sequestering greenhouse gases to the nation’s total carbon emissions, Masur said. If it had provided that context in the new document, it would have shown that the predicted capture of 25 metric tons a year is tiny by comparison to the total, which stood at 6,340 million metric tons of greenhouse gas equivalents in 2022.

“The reality is that 25 metric tons is nothing,” he said. “The projects are expensive, and really not in a scalable model but you would never know that, reading what they put out.”

In contrast to ARCH2’s plan, some of the seven hubs plan to produce so-called green hydrogen which uses electricity generated from renewable sources like wind and solar to power electrolysis that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. The green-hydrogen projects include MACH2 in southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware, which will also use power from a local nuclear plant to produce what’s known as pink hydrogen.

Rob Altenburg, senior director for energy and climate at the nonprofit PennFuture, said the new FAQs did nothing to ease his earlier doubts about the viability of hydrogen as a way to significantly curb emissions.

Among the concerns, he said, is that the hydrogen hub concept is unproven, and could become a drain on public and private funding at the expense of other more reliable means of decarbonization.

“We have some concern that we would be diverting resources from things that we know how to do,” he said.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, senior fellow Danny Cullenward said he doubts whether the planned adoption of hydrogen by industry would justify its high cost by cutting carbon emissions significantly.

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“There’s all this boosterism around hydrogen but it’s not clear to me that this is really the center of the energy transition,” Cullenward said. “There are clearly far more proposals to build hydrogen hubs than there is a need for hydrogen in the medium term.”

Subsidies for hydrogen are expected to go well beyond the initial $7 billion after tax breaks from the Treasury’s 45V program, which provides tax credits for the production of clean hydrogen under the Inflation Reduction Act and could end up costing the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars, he said.

Concerns about the high cost of hydrogen hubs, and their modest expected contribution to cutting carbon emissions, raise questions about why the Biden administration appears all-in on the concept. The answer to that, said O’Leary, may lie in their political implications.

“They’re thinking, ‘We can do something to help the environment; that will please some segment our constituency. At the same time, it will do something that pleases a deep-pocketed and entrenched industry in important states, and it pleases organized labor,’” he said. “I can understand that political calculus.” 

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