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2nd Jul 2022

The Shell 'carbon capture' plant that emits more than it captures

  • Blue hydrogen is often described as a clean substitute for natural gas, but unsolved methane leakage make it even more polluting than most fossil fuels (Photo: Alberta Newsroom)
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Many countries around the globe have committed to phasing-out fossil fuels in the next 10 to 30 years - with some wealthy EU member states like Germany promising to withdraw from the use of natural gas before 2035 completely.

Natural gas is used as a fuel for heating, transport and energy production and in industrial processes like steel, ammonia and hydrogen.

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Some of these can be electrified. But hydrogen is also often proposed as a replacement fuel.

EUobserver reported last week that increasing numbers of scientists are concerned that hydrogen is not efficient enough to serve as a source of heating and energy for millions of people. Still, many governments are betting there is a role for hydrogen to play in the clean energy future.

By capturing fossil fuel emissions, companies hope to produce clean 'blue' hydrogen, and governments are betting big on it.

One of the biggest such projects globally is the Shell Quest plant in Alberta.

Between 2015 and 2019, Quest captured and stored 5m tonnes of carbon dioxide.

On its website, Shell writes that the project shows an "effective approach to reducing carbon emissions from industrial sources."

"Blue hydrogen produces little to no greenhouse gas emissions," Shell wrote in FAQ in January last year.

But in a new report by Global Witness published on Thursday (20 January), the human rights organisation found that the hydrogen plant emitted 7.5m tonnes of greenhouse gases in the same timeframe - more than it has captured.

These emissions included methane, a gas that over a longer timeframe of 20 years has a greenhouse effect that is between 84 and 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to UN figures.

Just 48 percent of the plant's carbon emissions are captured, according to Global Witness - compared with the 90 percent promised by the industry for fossil hydrogen projects.

These findings also corroborate a study by Cornell University last year that found 'blue' hydrogen may be 20 percent more polluting than natural gas due to unsolved methane leakage in the supply chain.

According to earlier reports in Canadian media, almost 90 percent of the upwards of €900m Shell project was funded by regional and national governments.

Similar projects in Alberta have already been announced, and it has inspired other comparable projects in Norway, the Netherlands and other EU member states.

"The lesson from Quest should be loud and clear for governments all over the world. Do not invest in a technology that is not only failing to deliver any effective action in tackling the climate crisis," Global Witness wrote.

But in its hydrogen strategy, the European Commission noted in 2020 that the role of blue hydrogen is to grow until it can be replaced by so-called green hydrogen that is produced with renewable energy.

"Blue hydrogen can be a link between fossil fuel produced 'grey' hydrogen and green hydrogen", Shell wrote last year.

But retrofitted natural gas infrastructure and blue hydrogen plants built in the 2020s will almost certainly continue to operate for decades to earn back the money already invested, EUobserver reported last week.

Investments in blue hydrogen can even undermine climate policies and prolong the use of natural gas and fossil fuels.

"If natural gas is used as the feedstock to produce hydrogen, it may extend or even increase imports of natural gas," the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) reported last week.

Analysis

Hydrogen - the 'no-lose bet' for fossil-fuel industry?

The EU plans to label natural gas as 'green' in sustainable investment rules. From 2026 it will have to be blended with low-carbon gases like green hydrogen - but many scientists warn this is inefficient, costly and damaging to health.

Hydrogen strategy criticised for relying on fossil fuel gas

Civil society organisations criticised that the commission is relying on early-stage technologies that require the continued use of fossil fuels, undermining the EU's 2050 climate-neutrality target set in the Green Deal.

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