by Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA
Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Media Services
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania. Sign up for our free newsletters.
Pennsylvania officials are celebrating the Biden administration’s announcement that it will invest $1.6 billion to build hydrogen hubs partially located in the state to cut carbon pollution and fight climate change.
While the major features of the plans have been made public, critical details that will determine exactly how environmentally friendly the projects will be and the impact they will have on local communities remain shrouded in secrecy.
These uncertainties have been a source of consternation for environmental advocates, who caution that while hydrogen is a clean-burning fuel, it can be produced in ways that are just as bad for the environment as fossil fuels, or even worse.
“We’ve been pretty disappointed with the lack of transparency so far,” said Pete Budden, who leads state and regional hydrogen policy work at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s made it really difficult to advocate around these projects.”
At the highest levels of Pennsylvania government, officials are largely brushing off concerns and are instead celebrating the potential for hydrogen hubs to create new construction jobs and scientific industries.
“Those who are attacking this project, they’re standing in the way of real progress,” Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said at a recent event in Philadelphia. “Clean energy progress is going to be good for our environment, good for job creation.”
As part of the 2021 federal Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, the Department of Energy is allocating $7 billion to help fund up to ten hydrogen hubs across the country. Teams that aim to build two hubs partly in Pennsylvania are getting more than $1.6 billion.
A hydrogen hub doesn’t refer to a single production facility; rather, it encompasses all of the infrastructure needed to consume, produce, store, and transport hydrogen and any byproducts.
The Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub, which will primarily be located in Delaware and stretch into Southeast Pennsylvania, is set to receive up to $925 million from the feds. The Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, which will include part of Western Pennsylvania, will receive up to $750 million.
Both hubs have disclosed the names of some of the energy companies, unions, and officials backing them, and the basics about how they plan to produce hydrogen. However, many critical details about the latter are still unknown.
As of today, the public doesn’t know exactly what the hubs are planning to build, what existing infrastructure — like old pipelines or oil refineries — they are planning to retrofit, and the exact location of any of this planned infrastructure.
The reason why this key information remains secret is that the Department of Energy hasn’t released the hubs’ applications, and has mandated little public disclosure regarding the details of the plans, according to Budden of the NRDC.
Specifically, he pointed to non-commercially sensitive information about greenhouse gas emissions, community impact, and the effects on air and water quality.
The groups behind the hubs themselves have also declined to disclose the details of the plans, claiming they include sensitive proprietary information.
The Department of Energy has projected that the two hubs will create more than 40,000 jobs in plumbing, pipefitting, electrical work, and engineering; around 9,400 would be permanent.
Sean O’Leary — senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute, a left-leaning think tank — said he is wary of claims of job creation, noting that most of the jobs created would be temporary and that overseeing hydrogen production would require few permanent positions.
“Both of [the proposals] are, to a large degree, based on retrofitting existing facilities and infrastructure. The problem is retrofitting … doesn’t increase output or employment other than in temporary construction jobs,” O’Leary said. “The bottom line is that the amount of money invested counts for a lot less than how the money is invested.”
The state legislature has thus far largely declined to regulate the burgeoning hydrogen industry, though it did approve $1 billion in tax incentives to attract hubs to Pennsylvania. Some Democrats have introduced bills to incentivize hydrogen production with fewer emissions and place stricter guardrails on carbon capture infrastructure, though those efforts have failed to gain traction.
State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D., Chester) said conversations regarding oversight of the burgeoning hydrogen industry have been nearly nonexistent.
She’s primarily concerned with the issue of public safety, emphasizing that county officials need to be involved in planning for the construction and management of the hydrogen plants to prevent environmental or construction accidents.
“We had at least six months to plan for this, if not a year,” Friel Otten told Spotlight PA. “This whole conversation has been happening behind closed doors … We don’t even know who needs to be in the room because we don’t know what they’re proposing.”
Here’s what Spotlight PA could determine about the hubs based on public information and interviews with environmental advocates and researchers:
The Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub
The Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen Hub, also called MACH2, will be located in Delaware and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It will receive up to $925 million in federal funds.
“Core team” members for MACH2 include representatives from Philadelphia Gas Works and Steamfitters Local 240.
According to the Department of Energy, MACH2 is expected to create over 20,000 jobs — 14,400 in construction and 6,400 permanent jobs that involve plant operation.
MACH2 will produce predominantly green and pink hydrogen, according to its website.
Advocates for aggressive emission reductions see green hydrogen as the gold standard. This process strictly uses electricity from renewables like wind and solar to separate hydrogen from water, thereby creating no emissions and rendering carbon capture unnecessary. Pink hydrogen uses nuclear power.
The hub will also use “steam methane reforming with carbon capture” during “early phases of development,” according to a briefing circulated by MACH2 core team member Dora Cheatham, who also serves as executive director of the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance.
In that process, methane from natural gas is slowly heated with steam to produce hydrogen as well as other byproducts. Environmental advocates worry that this use of methane will simply perpetuate reliance on natural gas.
A spokesperson for MACH2 said there will be a single orange hydrogen project, a process that pumps water into deep iron-rich rock formations.
In total, MACH2 claims that it will reduce carbon emissions, though it does not explain in publicly available materials how this will occur.
The briefing states that the energy produced at MACH2 will be used for industrial, transportation, and electric power generation uses. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and the regional transportation agency SEPTA have committed to converting 300 garbage trucks and 1,400 buses to hydrogen-using vehicles, according to Shapiro.
Environmental advocates have pushed back against using hydrogen for industries that don’t heavily emit pollution. Because hydrogen is difficult to produce, they argue it should be reserved for high-emitting industries such as cementmaking, steelmaking, and the production of chemicals like ammonia.
The Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub
The Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, or ARCH2, will be located in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, and is slated to receive up to $750 million.
The project’s executive team includes West Virginia Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael and officials from natural gas producer EQT, the firm Allegheny Science & Technology, and Battelle — a research organization that runs labs for the federal government.
According to its website, 25 counties in Pennsylvania will be “impacted” by 29 different ARCH2 projects, though details about these projects are not publicly available.
Representatives from ARCH2 did not respond to requests for comment.
The website lists few other details regarding the hub’s plans, but a presentation that ARCH2 prepared for state lawmakers shows that the hub will produce both green and blue hydrogen.
The latter process derives hydrogen from methane-containing sources like natural gas. To prevent the release of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, ARCH2 will need to invest in carbon capture and storage technology.
According to the Department of Energy, the project is expected to create 21,000 jobs — 18,000 in construction and more than 3,000 permanent jobs. At a press conference announcing the hubs, DOE said that some of the main sites will be in La Belle in Fayette County and West Keating Township in Clinton County.
BEFORE YOU GO… If you learned something from this article, pay it forward and contribute to Spotlight PA at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.