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Let the Failed DNA Hydrogen Hub Go and Turn the Page to a Cleaner Future

by Donna Kohut, Campaign Manager

In September 2022, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it was soliciting applicants for its Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub Program (H2Hubs), which would direct billions of dollars to large-scale hydrogen projects across the nation through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). 

A total of three applications included Pennsylvania:

  • ARCH2
  • MACH2
  • DNA H2Hub

Each project claimed to leverage Pennsylvania's existing infrastructure, technology expertise, and skilled labor force. The promoters of the DNA project – which was not chosen by DOE to receive federal dollars  – are attempting to press on anyway, despite the deep risk of environmental and human harm to Southwestern PA. Why? A peek behind the curtain provides some answers. 

The Appalachia Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) is a WV-OH-PA-based “blue” hydrogen project and will utilize fracked-gas methane along with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to produce hydrogen and mitigate carbon emissions. The Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub (MACH2) is a PA-NJ-DE-based “green” hydrogen project and will utilize renewable energy to produce hydrogen. Both the ARCH2 and MACH2 projects advanced to the next round. However, the Decarbonization Network of Appalachia (DNA) project, another blue hydrogen hub based in OH-PA-WV, did not move forward. Getting denied billions of dollars in federal funding would be a good reason to scrap the project and move on, especially when another very similar project located in the same geography is moving forward. But Team PA, DNA's prime applicant, refuses to see the writing on the wall.

During the application period, Team PA - a peculiar public-private collaborative partnership between interest groups and the Commonwealth and co-chaired by the Governor - aimed to create a project supported by industry and labor that leveraged the Marcellus Shale gas reserves and proximity to Shell's ethane cracker plant in Beaver county. The plan was for Team PA to also manage the project's future implementation. Industry leaders involved in the project at varying times included Mitsubishi, Shell, and Equinor (a Norwegian oil and gas company). 

The DNA H2Hub promised to "unlock affordable, clean hydrogen and decarbonize the supply chains, manufacturing, and power production in America’s industrial heartland."  One of the clear goals of this project was to provide methane for polymer manufacturing for plastics production and energy production. This goal would be accomplished by doubling down on the fracked-gas methane production capacity in southwestern Pennsylvania. In essence, the project would seed and ultimately establish an artificial economic life-support system for the failing fracked gas industry, which is struggling to compete with low-cost renewable energy and is suffering from unfavorable market forces.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is home to some of the most polluted communities in the nation due to the legacy of steel, plastics, and refining operations based in the region. In fact, it is precisely this industrial history that makes it such an attractive place to try to seed hydrogen, a fuel that can be clean but can also just be a clean facade, or greenwashing. Communities here suffer the consequences of decades of hosting extractive, energy-intensive, and high-pollution industries. While there’s no shame in the work folks here have done in the past, it’s a simple fact that this legacy has left these communities economically dependent on these industries and struggling to emerge from under their smog-filled shadows. Locating the DNA H2Hub project in the heart of the Marcellus Shale region allows these high-polluting industries to continue this cycle of dependence,and the communities of Southwestern Pennsylvania will continue to be the ones holding the bag.  

The fenceline communities in southwestern Pennsylvania don't want more methane fracked from the ground, transported through leaky pipelines, and converted into carbon dioxide and hydrogen. They want a sustainable and healthy economy based on renewable energy, energy storage, sustainable manufacturing, and family-sustaining union jobs.


Blue Hydrogen Fails Economics 101

Even the fossil fuel giants recognize that it is time to flip the switch. Both Shell and Equinor pulled out of the DNA project before the Biden administration even announced the winners of the DOE's program. Now, Shell is working on green hydrogen projects in Europe, Australia, and India. Meanwhile, Equinor, which is Germany's primary source for gas, is collaborating with several other energy companies to field test hydrogen technology - "ultra-efficient electrolyzers" with the ultimate goal of reducing the cost and "facilitating the widespread adoption of large-scale green hydrogen production".

Why would these energy titans move their focus overseas to develop green hydrogen when the Marcellus Shale region is drowning in methane? Because they are profit-motivated, and the economics for blue hydrogen do not make sense. Equinor, in particular, can attest to the risk involved in developing blue hydrogen at-scale. The international company has a history of failed attempts at CCS projects. The company had to abort a CCS project because the reservoir was at risk of collapsing, and a second was halted because the injected CO2 was polluting the methane extracted from the site. What's more, when Equinor was known as Statoil in 2013, it shutdown its Mongstad CCS plant after just about a year of operation. Through decades of trial and error, Equinor has experienced the economic and technical challenges of blue hydrogen, and rather than continuing to invest in technology that consistently fails in both arenas, it is moving in a new direction.

Team PA offered a presentation about the MACH2, ARCH2, and DNA hub projects to the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Citizens Advisory Council (CAC). During that presentation, Thomas Murphy, the Senior Managing Director of Strategic Energy Initiatives, said that in spite of two of its major partners pulling out and a lack of federal funding, the organization was moving forward with the project and would continue to collaborate with Mitsubishi. In the face of contrary market forces, lack of government investment, unproven technology, and abandonment by industry leaders, maddeningly, Team PA insists on doubling down on methane-derived hydrogen. 

The bottom line is that blue hydrogen isn’t climate friendly. Even when operating at its most efficient, experts argue that the blue hydrogen technology available right now is only 78% effective at capturing its carbon emissions. It takes additional energy input for carbon capture technology to run, which means that "due to the increased amount of fossil gas needed to power the CCS process, blue hydrogen likely had a 20% higher carbon footprint than burning methane alone." This should be said again: blue hydrogen, which supposedly takes a high impact fuel and makes it lower-impact, actually has a higher footprint than if it was never created in the first place. This is why groups like PennFuture are calling for investment in renewables first, before throwing good money at bad technologies that perpetuate fracking and all of the negative health outcomes and economic failures that come with it.


The DNA Hub Will Only Perpetuate the Harms of the Past

Team PA claimed that the DNA hub would improve the economic conditions for workers by providing good-paying jobs for a "marginalized, underserved, and fossil fuel-dependent region." In reality, it would maintain the status quo by offering the same hollow promises that the fossil fuel industry has offered for centuries, refusing to acknowledge the real threats that this project poses to the environment and, consequently, to workers and local communities. Simply put, the DNA H2Hub, if completed, will perpetuate the boom-bust economic cycle created by the extraction of both fossil fuel and labor resources with detrimental environmental and health consequences.

It would behoove Team PA, the Commonwealth, fenceline communities, and workers to follow Equinor's lead. Pennsylvanians - especially the most vulnerable, disaffected, and disenfranchised among us - do not need more empty promises and cycles of a boom-bust economy. We need a stable economy, a stable climate, and a healthy environment. Ironically, fossil fuels seem to be going the way of the dinosaur. And yet Team PA seems unwilling to recognize this fact. 

Pennsylvania needs Team PA to read the writing on the wall and pivot. They need to focus on serving the residents and workers of the Commonwealth, instead of chasing a scheme designed to keep the fracked gas industry afloat and distracting from real solutions like renewables, battery storage, and building a sustainable economy. 

Going forward PennFuture will be focusing our efforts on pushing Pennsylvania towards a better economic future. Every day you can find our staff and members testifying before the legislature, holding polluters accountable in our courts and advocating for better environmental policies in our communities. To support this work, please consider becoming a member today

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