A proposal to ramp up New Mexico’s hydrogen production with the hope of uniting environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry behind a supposedly cleaner energy source is instead further dividing them in the fight against climate change.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration is expected to introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would offer tax incentives to develop the infrastructure and supply chain for what she describes as a low-carbon hydrogen economy.

The Democratic governor and her allies tout the proposed Hydrogen Hub Act as reducing the state’s economic dependence on the fossil fuel industry while helping New Mexico create jobs and reduce climate-warming greenhouse gases.

But one fossil fuel would remain in the mix.

The plan calls for separating hydrogen from natural gas while capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it underground, producing what’s known as “blue hydrogen.” It would have a wide range of uses, from powering electric plants to fueling transportation to heating homes.

The natural gas component has stirred fierce opposition from environmental groups and wariness from some state Democratic lawmakers who view blue hydrogen as benefiting the industry more than the climate.

Critics point to a recent peer-reviewed study that says blue hydrogen has a 20 percent greater carbon footprint than burning natural gas or coal for heat.

“To pursue blue hydrogen at all is not a climate solution,” said Tom Solomon, a retired electrical engineer and co-coordinator for 350 New Mexico, a climate advocacy group.

It’s different from green hydrogen, which is separated from water through electrolysis using renewable energy to power the process, Solomon said.

Green hydrogen, which consumes massive amounts of water, could be used at some point for, say, trans-Atlantic flights and cross-country trucking when recharging electric batteries would be difficult, he said.

Right now, the most urgent priority is cutting fossil fuel emissions as quickly as possible to avert a climate disaster, and hydrogen distracts from that pursuit, Solomon added.

Still, the governor vigorously champions her administration’s current blue hydrogen plan.

“Hydrogen for an energy state is more jobs, and we want that in every context,” Lujan Grisham said in a podcast earlier this year. “The second vision that we have here is that hydrogen in the energy environment gives us a clean energy platform, continues to meet our goals for renewable energy and decarbonization.”

Industry would benefit

The proposed bill coincides with the recently passed federal infrastructure package, which funnels $8 billion toward creating four hydrogen hubs across the nation, preferably in the most oil-rich states.

New Mexico is second only to Texas in fossil fuel production, making it eligible for the federal money.

Maddy Hayden, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email producers would be rewarded with more generous tax benefits for making lower carbon-intense hydrogen.

The tax incentives would encourage companies to build the infrastructure needed to produce and deliver hydrogen as well as install fueling stations.

An oil-and-gas trade group spokesman said the industry supports state and federal efforts to produce hydrogen.

“The industry is committed to working with all policymakers to expand commercial applications of our oil and natural gas resources, including hydrogen produced using natural gas,” Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, wrote in an email. “Because of our energy leadership and vast oil and natural gas resources, these are the type of ideas that New Mexico should leverage.”

However, the policies must be “technology neutral,” meaning they don’t prescribe a particular method such as using renewable energy, McEntyre added.

The proposed legislation will enable New Mexico to cash in on a global trend, helping industries that lack an alternative energy source to decarbonize, state Environment Department spokesman Matt Maez said.

“The hydrogen economy is growing worldwide and right here in New Mexico,” Maez wrote in an email. “Producing, distributing and using low-carbon hydrogen will accelerate our progress in combating climate change — or we wouldn’t be pursuing this legislation.”

The Lujan Grisham administration has imposed tougher regulations and beefed up enforcement of rules in sectors that emit the most greenhouse gases, including oil and gas, Maez wrote, adding that will curb carbon emissions as the hydrogen hub is being built.



Solomon, the climate advocate, said it’s no surprise the industry supports the bill, which would subsidize operators through tax breaks while keeping natural gas flowing to manufacture blue hydrogen.

Those in the fossil fuel industry fear a declining demand for their products, so they began promoting hydrogen as an alternative, Solomon said, calling it a false green solution.

“The purpose of it [hydrogen] is to provide a path to sell more natural gas and delay the clean energy transition,” he said.

No perfect color

How hydrogen is made is at the heart of environmentalists’ discontent.

About 98 percent of hydrogen is now “gray.” It is derived from breaking methane into hydrogen and carbon monoxide through intense heat, pressure and steam. But unlike the blue version, which comes from the same method, the pollutants are spewed into the atmosphere.

Blue hydrogen is significantly cleaner than gray. However, it has a large carbon footprint across its supply chain due to methane leaks during drilling, processing and delivery, as well as the natural gas needed for raw material and to power much of the equipment, according to a study published in Energy Science & Engineering.

It’s also unclear how well the current technology captures the carbon emissions while blue hydrogen is made, Solomon said. Another concern is when hydrogen is burned, it produces nitrogen oxide, an element in forming toxic ground-level ozone.

Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, told lawmakers in November blue hydrogen — or any expansion of oil and gas infrastructure — will impede the state’s effort to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“There’s no such thing as zero emissions from fossil gas hydrogen,” he told the interim Legislative Economic Development and Policy Committee. “It’s just a reality.”

The state must work to decrease demand in fossil fuels, not boost it by chasing federal money for hydrogen projects that offer no long-term benefit for New Mexicans, Schlenker-Goodrich said.

After his presentation, several lawmakers expressed concerns about how quickly the push to make New Mexico a hydrogen hub was moving and the fact that blue hydrogen would require fracking.

Sen. Carrie Hamblen, D-Las Cruces, worried about how severely fracking would affect front-line communities, including minority neighborhoods and tribes.

Hamblen, who is president and CEO of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, said there are concerns about blue hydrogen and what it does as an extractive industry.

“I appreciate and just applaud the governor for trying to get more money to New Mexico because we’re constantly at the bottom of the list of things,” she said. However, she added, “I think based on the conversation we had in the committee, there might be some concerns that this might not be the best way to try and get those resources to the state.”

Solomon said Hamblen was among the 17 Democratic lawmakers to whom he has presented a slideshow on blue hydrogen, so they would be better informed when they take up the bill. He saw no point in asking any Republicans to view it because they’ll back a bill that benefits the industry, he said.

Dan Klein, managing partner for Libertad Power in Santa Fe, said both blue and green hydrogen have their flaws and trade-offs.

Klein said his company, which works with utilities to generate and sell power in the West, is venturing more into hydrogen as an energy source.

Green hydrogen takes twice as much water to manufacture as blue hydrogen, he said. But with blue hydrogen, there are questions about how cleanly it can be produced.

It’s important to rely on data to determine the best hydrogen rather than depending on a color code, Klein said.

“You want to mitigate the effects of climate change,” he said. “What gets you there quicker, what gets you there cheaper? And if you’re looking at blue hydrogen … are the problems that are now identified with it so egregious and so irreparable that you do away with the technology altogether?”

Solomon said rather than worrying about how to capture blue hydrogen’s carbon emissions during production, don’t bother with it at all — and leave the natural gas in the ground.

As for green hydrogen, the state should focus instead on developing solar and wind power, given the large quantity of water it would demand in an arid region, he said.

“New Mexico, with its ongoing drought and water issues, is probably not the right place to produce green hydrogen,” Solomon said. “States with a better supply of fresh water would make more sense to do that.”

(11) comments

Mike Johnson

This whole hydrogen scheme is ill-conceived and scientifically, environmentally, and economically unfounded. I think it is more evidence of why politicians cannot be trusted to make decisions where science, economics, and common sense is involved. MLG has a bad case of cognitive dissonance here, as she does with many complex scientific and economic issues, most likely driven by her ignorance in these areas as well as political motivations which never consider the facts, just what is best for her political career.

Tom Ribe

Making hydrogen from natural gas makes no sense on multiple levels. The ONLY answer is to make hydrogen from water using wind and solar as the energy source for the process. This works and makes virtually no pollution. Let's do this all over New Mexico! All other hydrogen sources pollute and waste energy.

We can let the oil industry slowly die. I know they give politicians millions in "contributions" but the public interest lies in their demise.

Khal Spencer

Yep. With all that excess water we have here.

Philip Taccetta

Making hydrogen from renewable sources is throwing away 20% for the process plus line loss. Then there’s the water and distribution problem. Seems like better batteries would be a more logical solution.

Philip Taccetta

While I mostly agree with the Governor, I’m definitely against this hydrogen hub idea. Previous comments are spot on as to why this project should be immediately shelved.

Khal Spencer

Nice article about batteries.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02222-1

Khal Spencer

Good slide show. I think what is driving this is a sense among politicians of a free lunch (federal dollars, etc), coupled with the appearance of "doing something" for climate. But as the research shows, we are better off to just burn fossil fuels than to use fossil and limited renewable energy (and other resources) to chemically separate hydrogen from carbon in hydrocarbons and then sequester the CO2, finally burning the hydrogen alone.

Bottom line is there is no free lunch. Batteries mean more mining and refining of the essential minerals. Chemical energy is inefficient at best. Nuclear, to the Left, is the third rail of the discussion although it is far more efficient in watts per gram of fuel consumed.

I guess we need to live more frugally while we figure this out.

Greg Mello

It would be nice if there was better grounding in science in this article. Howarth and Jacobson, obliquely cited here, are undoubtedly correct in their assessment that "blue hydrogen" (which is not really a "thing," just an idea with a lot of money behind it, because carbon capture is not a reality at scale, and for good reasons) will cause more greenhouse gas emissions than just burning the methane. Solomon is however incorrect in his praise of "green hydrogen" somewhere else, because of the inherent thermodynamic and engineering issues with hydrogen as a fuel, period. There will be no hydrogen-fueled airplanes on a commercial basis, for example. Maybe Bezos will build one, LOL. Neither will there be hydrogen-powered mobility for the masses. Even if feasible, green hydrogen's enormous inefficiencies would translate, in political terms, into a society and polity of extreme geographic (colonies) and class inequality. The "net zero by 2050" goal is also really stupid -- contrary to climate science and common-sense political accountability. It is just a cover for corruption. It is really shameful that my one-time employer, the Environment Department, should participate in this corruption. Supposedly there are scientists there, not just bureaucratic drones. Wake up, please. This governor has presided over policies that have increased the greenhouse emissions attributable to NM industry and society by about a factor of three, if marketed oil and gas products are included. All the proposed reductions this governor aims for by 2030 are already long canceled by this. This newspaper can't seem to think outside a neoliberal, corporate box. Poverty and environmental protection can't be solved from within this blinkered worldview. Instead of arguing over which profit-extracting corporate plan is best, focus mostly on immediate, practical steps that can provide wonderful careers for New Mexicans from locally-owned activities actually decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, which would improve communities and build self-governance and strong communities. These are by and large technically-humble but politically-ambitious activities and policies. Don't just talking about reducing emissions later while meanwhile reducing New Mexico to an energy, nuclear weapons, and military colony, with an eye to campaign contributions and a future national appointment from Democratic Party nabobs in DC. Speaking of the labs, I would be remiss in not mentioning that this stupid hydrogen hub idea comes from the Department of Energy and its labs, and is being promoted by LANL for self-serving career and corporate reasons, not science. Hydrogen as a fuel could be dismissed in a day by competent engineers. To the extent LANL has any such competent people who have the training and curiosity to see the big picture, they have apparently lost their tongues. Write us if you have questions; contact info at lasg.org.

Chris Mechels

Greg Mello is "spot on" with his comments. The driver for hydrogen is simply "jobs" as the Governor's comment shows. This is consistent with other programs, jobs first, addressing Climate Change, someday. The solution; remove the Governor.

Another Green Solution from the Governor; the Cannabis Act. It is being implemented in a series of ILLEGAL Rule Makings, to meet impossible deadlines. When even the implementation is illegal, and excludes the public, we can bet that the Cannabis Industry will operate illegally without effective oversight. We are establishing the Drug Culture in New Mexico, to go with our other governmental corruption, and only the Republicans voted against it. Driven, it seems, only by "jobs, jobs, jobs", and no moral/ethical considerations, that's the Trifecta.

George Kafantaris

Let’s say it again, battery electric vehicles are a stopgap “until fuel cell vehicles take hold.”

And fuel cell vehicles will take hold precisely because oil companies can support them with their existing business model — the same one they now use to support gasoline and diesel filling stations. Those who prefer only battery cars should reflect on this and on the words of Angela Needle:

“Efficiency is not the only value driver for a working energy system, you’ve got to look at resilience – is the energy always there when we need it? We’ve got to look at consumer behavior and needs – the cost of disruption of getting everybody to install an electric solution over hydrogen. Is it worth it and does it get us [to net zero] at the pace we need?”

Earl James

Interesting that Dr Angela Needle is Director of Strategy at Cadent Gas, but not identified as such here! 🙄 And perhaps the NM Environment Department staffers - whose mission is to protect the environment - should read the following article from Smithsonian Magazine, and watch Tom Solomon’s detailed science-based and very clear presentation on the truth about any color of Hydrogen!

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/blue-hydrogen-20-worse-burning-coal-study-states-180978451/

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LI0tedF_1pk

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