Shell’s “Quest” plant in Alberta, Canada, using carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the production of hydrogen called blue hydrogen, is falling short of meeting its carbon capture promises.
A study led by watchdog group Global Witness, showed that out of the total 12.5 million tons of greenhouse gasses generated from the plant from 2015 until 2019, only 5 million tons of emissions were captured while 7.5 million tons of greenhouse gasses were released into the atmosphere over the same period.
Previously touted as a “thriving example” of how CCS is working to significantly reduce carbon emissions, the blue hydrogen plant has proven to actually emit more CO2 than it captures and sequesters by the installation.
The captured emissions also represent 48% of the plant’s total carbon emissions which is far short of the 90% carbon capture rate promised by the industry for these types of carbon capture projects.
According to the Global Witness organization, the estimation of the plant’s emissions includes methane, which has 80 times the warming power of carbon during its first 20 years in the atmosphere, and accounts for about a quarter of man-made warming today.
In 2021, some other studies and analyses came out that questioned the validity of blue hydrogen for the goal of reducing man-made emissions in the industry. One analysis of government data showed that blue hydrogen could result in up to 8 million tons of CO2 emissions per year by 2050. That means it could actually be counterproductive in the battle of transitioning to a net zero economy.
A peer-reviewed study from Stanford and Cornell universities also showed that the greenhouse gas emissions from burning blue hydrogen for heating are 20% higher than those from burning natural gas – another conflict with the goals of reducing emissions promised by blue hydrogen use.
Many environmental groups and scientists also claim that investments in blue hydrogen are not justified when considering the emissions reductions. According to earlier data, almost 90% of the upwards of over $1 billion (€900 million) for Shell’s carbon capture plant was funded by regional and national governments.
That investment resulted in the reduction of 5 million tons of CO2 in the course of 4 years which is negligible compared to the 36.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide the world emitted in 2021. Critics claim those investments could be better spent elsewhere where emissions reductions would be bigger.
The European Commission also notes in its hydrogen strategy that the role of blue hydrogen is to grow until it can be replaced by green hydrogen, produced with renewable energy. However, 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, according to EUobserver.
That means blue hydrogen could be seen as a way of utilizing fossil fuels for decades to come which undermines some climate change policies of phasing them out completely. “If natural gas is used as the feedstock to produce hydrogen, it may extend or even increase imports of natural gas,” according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).