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How the Hydrogen Lobby Is Greenwashing Fossil Fuel

Corporate fossil fuel giants are lobbying the UK government to have the national grid converted to hydrogen – but their plans guarantee further carbon emissions and block any efforts towards net zero.

Lobbying and patronage have long been central features of British political life. From the ‘rotten’ boroughs of the 1800s to the ‘sleaze’ scandals of the 1990s, corporate interests have a hold on the ear of our governing class. In the last year, Conservative clientelism has become a weekly revelation.

No surprise then that the Tories are at it again, this time with the fossil fuel lobby. As the Times reported last month, Shell and BP have been lobbying the government hard for the national grid to be refitted to hydrogen gas instead of natural gas, purportedly to decarbonise the country’s energy system.

This intense lobbying effort means hydrogen has become a permanent feature of parliamentary discourse. The gas was mentioned 18 times in Parliament in 2015; last year, it was mentioned 392 times. The change clearly reflects access to ministers: data from Transparency International shows that energy companies and trade bodies held 34 meetings with ministers on hydrogen from January to September last year – up from zero in 2019.

The power of the hydrogen lobby also permeates at the local governmental level. In recently published documents such as the Greater Manchester Decarbonisation Pathway—funded by gas distribution giant Cadent—hydrogen is being championed as a climate change panacea, and given a dominant position in our regional energy transition.

It is unsurprising that a post-Brexit Britain would see an intensification of lobbying for hydrogen. Energy giants already have a stranglehold on Brussels: more conservative estimates note that they have spent €58.6 million on lobbying the European Commission for favourable policy and for access to public funds. The release of the European Hydrogen Strategy, echoing the industry’s demands, shows how successful they have been. But Brexit, and the break with the EU’s supranational structures it entails, requires they redouble efforts to lobby for hydrogen in Westminster.

The energy giants hail hydrogen as key to cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and have placed bold bets on its uptake. Shell did so in 2015 with its £47 billion takeover of BG, the rump of privatised British Gas, while BP has been investing in liquefied natural gas terminals and fields in Africa.

So what’s wrong with hydrogen? Broadly speaking, hydrogen can be split into two separate categories, ‘blue’ and ‘green’. The difference between them lies in the ways in which they are produced: ‘blue’ hydrogen is produced through the combustion of methane, while ‘green’ hydrogen relies on renewables. The UK gas supply industry is advocating for an immediate transition to ‘blue’ hydrogen alongside the use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to mop up carbon emissions, followed by a gradual transition to ‘green’ hydrogen after.

But ‘blue’ hydrogen should have no place in climate mitigation strategies. First, because ‘blue’ hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels, relying on it for energy means we would still be contributing to global heating; second, the at-scale carbon capture and storage technology required to make ‘blue’ hydrogen net-zero does not currently exist. The claim made by energy companies that ‘blue’ hydrogen will merely be a temporary solution before transitioning to the ‘green’ variant is as disingenuous as it is dangerous, reliant as it is on the mythical power of non-existent carbon capture technologies.

Hydrogen is also one of the most inefficient methods of energy transfer available. Heating from hydrogen can only deliver 45kWh output from an input of 100kWh. To heat our buildings in their current state, ‘blue’ hydrogen would require a 25 percent increase in our natural gas imports as domestic energy demand skyrockets.

The fabled transition to ‘green’ hydrogen would also require a near-impossible increase in domestic renewable production to meet increased demand from these inefficiencies. If we were to rely on energy production from wind we would have to expand Britain’s capacity of offshore wind turbines forty times over. Given our timescale, and the serious concerns regarding global supply chains to produce renewable technologies, this is simply not a future on which we can gamble.

Far from delivering climate justice, the transition to hydrogen will merely amount to a corporate feeding frenzy. This is because getting it to work at scale carries with it a colossal public sector subsidy requirement. Government subsidies for Drax BECCS could cost an eye-watering £32 billion – a sum that could cover the costs of retrofitting the entire country’s current housing stock.

Alternatively, energy reduction measures like retrofit would have innumerable economic and social co-benefits. Millions of people would be lifted out of fuel poverty because they would live in houses they could afford to heat. Installing small-scale renewables like heat pumps and solar panels would also mean households could produce energy, as well as the means of storing that energy, and the means of federating that storage. Dignified in comfortable homes, the householders of Britain would own their energy, the most fundamental element of the means of production.

So why does hydrogen enjoy such a privileged position? The answer is simple. Decarbonisation presents an existential risk to the energy giants’ oligopoly. These companies promote hydrogen out of concerns that their pipelines, worth billions of pounds, risk becoming ‘stranded assets’ as gas is phased out due to the climate crisis. They will do, and have done, all they can to insert themselves into climate mitigation strategies and protect their economic position.

This play for business as usual did not emerge overnight. It’s the culmination of a years-long march through the institutions. The fossil fuel lobby went about creating ideological state apparatuses in the form of gas industry projects and university reports to launder obscurantist physics so brazenly that it would have made Louis Althusser blush: put simply, they have greenwashed natural gas.

This has paid political dividends for the fossil fuel lobby. The secretariat for the all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen is funded by Shell, Cadent, Scotia Gas Networks, and Northern Gas Networks; its chair, Redcar MP Jacob Young, is a former employee of a petrochemicals firm looking to benefit commercially from hydrogen. Clearly, the Tories are staying true to their age-old purpose to consolidate class power at the moment it seems threatened in a period of crisis.

Labour must call this out as a means of politically demarcating itself from Johnson’s greenwashing Tories. As James Butler points out, the political danger for Labour is the Tories co-opting and rearticulating ‘Green New Deal’ policies, and hydrogen exemplifies this perfectly. Labour can expose this for what it is—protecting the power of fossil capital under the pretence of protecting the planet—and put forward and clarify a vision which is green and democratic based on retrofit and small-scale renewables.