The hydrogen bill gifts $4 billion to the fossil fuel industry
By Patrick McDonnell, PennFuture President and CEO
Pennsylvania’s policymakers keep rolling out the red carpet for the fracked gas and petrochemical industries. Like the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, where Wile E. Coyote’s ever-
more elaborate plans to capture the Road Runner are doomed to fail, our elected leaders continue repeating efforts to gift the fossil fuel industry with more and bigger subsidies. The
latest hopes of capturing economic prosperity are similarly doomed — with a catastrophic cost to public health and the environment.
The latest fossil fuel infatuation is hydrogen. This past September the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) opened applications for $7 billion worth of grants to establish between six and
ten “regional clean hydrogen hubs.” Pennsylvania politicians are anxious to access these grants to attract the dirtiest hydrogen facilities to western Pennsylvania, even though the program
provides more lucrative incentives for hydrogen produced using renewable energy.
To grease the skids further, Governor Tom Wolf and legislative leaders are working behind closed doors on a history-making state fossil fuel subsidy package. Without a single hearing,
public discussion, or speech, the Commonwealth’s leaders are putting the final touches on nearly $4 billion in subsidies over 20 years for petrochemical companies and dirty hydrogen
To be clear, hydrogen can be created sustainably using renewable energy. Hydrogen could play a niche role in decarbonizing heavy industries that are difficult to electrify like steel and cement
manufacturing and for long-distance transportation. For this reason, targeted investments in the research, demonstration, and production of so-called “green” hydrogen makes sense.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s policymakers are not contemplating how to develop “green hydrogen.” A recent report from TeamPA instead envisions reliance on dirty hydrogen sourced
from steam reformation of methane — an energy intensive industrial process using highly polluting fracked gas.
They claim that dirty hydrogen facilities could use carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) to reduce carbon pollution. But instead of taking a realistic look at the failed performance of
CCS pilot projects, the TeamPA proposal simply moves the goal posts well short of decarbonization. Of the 22 facilities identified as “near-term capture opportunities,” TeamPA
only claims 76 percent of the carbon pollution will be captured. These facilities would still be dumping more carbon into the atmosphere than the pollution from 200,000 cars — and that
doesn’t consider upstream emissions from drilling, fracking, and transportation or any leakage from the carbon storage facilities.
Like hydrogen, CCS might prove useful to reduce some emissions that can’t be addressed any other way. But relying on dirty hydrogen and CCS to underpin our future economic hopes simply makes no sense. Nevertheless, the politics are hard to deny. Elected officials very much want to tell the fracked gas industry that they can keep drilling and fracking while giving lip service to protecting our health and the environment as a problem to be fixed later.
This is a textbook case of greenwashing to disguise the lack of serious plans to decarbonize our economy. Billions of dollars in state subsidies to woo dirty hydrogen and petrochemical
facilities could instead be used to support a significant amount of renewable energy and energy efficiency — a policy that every public poll shows overwhelming support for and would also
decarbonize our economy and support family-sustaining jobs.
Luckily, many of the pieces of a comprehensive strategy already exist. Joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) was a good first step, but the legislature remains adamant on
stopping it through the courts or legislative action. The legislature still hasn’t acted on House Bill 1565 to invest RGGI carbon auction proceeds into renewable energy, family-sustaining jobs,
and communities. Policymakers have sat on House Bill 1555 for years, failing to remove a regulatory blockade that would open community access to solar energy projects. And Senate
Bill 300 would increase Pennsylvania’s zero-carbon electricity goals after languishing at low levels for years.
The approach policymakers are taking instead is one where the residents of Pennsylvania do nothing but pay. We will pay for decades of subsidies to support aging plants. We will pay for
the health impacts of increased carbon emissions and other pollution. We will pay for the loss of clean energy jobs to our neighboring states. And we will pass this debt to our children and
In a rapidly changing climate that’s putting pressure on our elected leaders to think differently about growing a sustainable economy, Pennsylvania is still trying to catch the Road Runner and
we know how that episode ends. TeamPA, Governor Wolf, and the legislature are wrong — taking the fossil fuel playbook and slapping a dirty hydrogen or petrochemical cover on it is not
a plan. It’s a drag on the economy and a climate killer.