President Joe Biden’s landmark $2 billion climate legislation, the Build Back Better Bill, was recently declared dead by Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from conservative West Virginia whose deciding vote is needed to pass most laws in the Senate 50-50.
Among the $500 billion in incentives for renewable energy and climate action included in the bill was a generous clean hydrogen production tax credit that would instantly turn green and blue H2 competitive with the very polluting gray variety.
Now the 74-year-old, who is a multimillionaire thanks to his local coal investments, is seeking billions of federal dollars to make West Virginia one of four clean hydrogen hubs outlined in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The legislation, which was passed last summer after Manchin’s contribution, allocates $8 billion in 2022-26 to help establish at least four regional clean hydrogen centers, and calls on the energy secretary to select at least one center proposal from three sources: renewable energy, nuclear energy and fossil fuels.
For the latter, carbon capture and storage (CCS) would be required to meet the clean hydrogen criteria of the law to emit less than 2 kg of CO2 equivalent for each kilogram of blue H2 product. (“Blue Hydrogen” is derived from fossil fuels with CCS.)
This week, the Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Request for Information “to gather feedback from stakeholders to inform the implementation and design” of the regional hydrogen hub program.
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Some lawmakers — including Manchin and his Democratic rival, New York Senator Chuck Schumer — understood this to mean the first step in the center selection process and immediately launched campaigns to access billions of dollars in federal cash.
Together with Republican officials – Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Representative David McKinley and Governor Jim Justice, Manchin launched the Wis Virginia Hydrogen Hub Working Group “collaborate and support a strong candidate from West Virginia to choose to develop a hydrogen hub”.
McKinley said a hydrogen hub in West Virginia would “create good jobs and allow us to take advantage of our existing natural gas and coal resources.”
West Virginia is the second-largest coal-producing state in the United States and the eighth-largest producer of fossil gas.
“With our abundant energy sources and strong partnerships, our state is uniquely positioned to compete for DOE funding to develop a hydrogen hub, as envisioned by my Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act [Recharge’s italics]added Manchin.
It could be something of a conflict of interest for Manchin, who has earned millions of dollars from local coal investments and still holds millions of dollars in coal stocks. In 2020, he earned nearly $500,000 from his shares in Enersystems, a private coal and natural gas company of which he served as chairman in the 1990s.
“West Virginia has always been known as one of the world’s leading energy powers, and we want to do everything in our power to ensure that we continue to be exactly that. for centuries to come [Recharge’s italics]said Governor Justice.
Let that sink in for a moment – the state governor wants to use federal taxpayers money to make sure West Virginia can use coal and natural gas for hundreds of years. Now, let that sink in. Justice is a billionaire who inherited a coal empire from his father and owns over 50 coal mines, many of which are in his home country.
The problem with blue hydrogen
Obvious conflicts of interest aside, any blue hydrogen produced in West Virginia is unlikely to be very clean.
For starters, it is only possible to capture 85-90% of the carbon emissions from the traditional hydrogen production process by steam methane reforming (SMR), with similar levels for H2 derived from the gasification of coal. It is however possible to increase the hydrogen methane capture rate to 95-99% through a more expensive and less common process called autothermal reforming.
A study last year concluded that H blue2 was worse than burning gas or coal from a climate point of view, while another said it would be comparable to green hydrogen if methane leaks were minimized.
And it should be pointed out that hydrogen from coal produces twice as much CO2 emissions as H2 from natural gas.
But the biggest problem for blue hydrogen is upstream methane emissions and leaks. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than CO2 over a period of 20 years, and there are often leaks.
According to a 2019 study in the Total Environmental Science newspaper, methane emissions from oil and gas wells in West Virginia were seven times higher than estimates by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Other peer-reviewed studies found that methane emissions from low-production gas wells in the state accounted for 9% of their gas production.
Methane also leaks from coal mines. According to the International Energy Agency, 40.5 million tonnes of coal bed methane leaked from active mines around the world in 2020.
And according to a 2018 report from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, a government agency of the Department of Labor, a West Virginia mine, known as Pinnacle, was releasing more than 111,000 cubic meters of methane into the air every day. air.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm now has two big questions to answer when considering the candidacy of Manchin and her friends.
The first is whether upstream emissions count for the 2 kg of CO2/kgH2 figure. If so, West Virginia is highly unlikely to meet the criteria for the legislation. In fact, no other US state would.
The second is whether the Biden administration could offer Manchin a misunderstanding in exchange for awarding billions of dollars in funding to a West Virginia hydrogen center – something along the lines of “vote for this bill and we’ll give you X in return.”
President Biden is desperate for a big legislative victory ahead of the midterm elections in November, when Democrats could lose the Senate and House, and Manchin is arguably the biggest hurdle in his path.
The deadline for responding to the hydrogen hubs’ request for information is set for March 8. That could buy enough time for Biden and Granholm to onboard Manchin with climate legislation before handing him the West Virginia hydrogen hub — if that’s a compromise Democrats, and perhaps the planet, are ready for. to accept.