Hydrogen op-ed needed context

This opinion was written by Donovan Vincent, the Star’s public editor, and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.

While opinion pieces afford writers a forum to present more of their point of view, when it comes to important and complex issues that some readers may not be overly familiar with, there’s also a duty to inform.

Earlier this month, the Star published an opinion article that said the oil and gas sector has “bamboozled” this country’s politicians into supporting Canada’s hydrogen industry.

The contribution from freelancer Taylor C. Noakes, a journalist, historian and regular contributor to the Star, argued Canada’s goals for hydrogen as an alternate energy source are based more on “myth than reality” when it comes to fighting climate change.

Noakes believes that rather than being the fuel of the future, as proponents are calling it, hydrogen use is still in the “highly experimental” phase and lacks the critical infrastructure to be transported widely, whether by land or sea.

Intended to coincide with the timing of the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt and pegged to news earlier this summer of a hydrogen export pact signed between Canada and Germany, Noakes’ article started on the front page of our Insight section and provided lots of fascinating facts that seemed to back up his main thesis.

Noakes argued hydrogen is a complicated solution given the existence of simpler options, including solar and wind power. He went on to say hydrogen is being touted by the fossil fuel sector because that sector derives financial benefits from it — primarily, because they have natural gas in abundance that they can use as the feeder fuel to create hydrogen.

He later quoted a manager from Environmental Defence who slammed hydrogen as a way for fossil fuel interests to “lock in more natural gas infrastructure.”

Near the end of the article, Noakes pointed out that earlier this month, the federal government committed several hundred million dollars to a hydrogen facility in the works in Edmonton, operated by Pennsylvania-based firm Air Products, a company that calls itself the world’s largest hydrogen producer.

A reader couldn’t be faulted, therefore, for concluding that politicians from our federal government had just wasted a fortune in tax dollars on a new hydrogen facility after being hoodwinked by the oil and gas lobby.

But some experts, including representatives from Air Products and a local environmentalist who has for decades studied hydrogen and clean energy, contacted the Star to say Noakes left out some important context in his story — salient details readers needed to fully grasp what is actually happening with our hydrogen industry.

After hearing their arguments, I tend to agree.

Opinion articles are just that: an opportunity for writers to tell readers how they feel about issues. Like I do with my column.

But it’s a delicate balance. While opinion pieces afford writers a forum to present more of their point of view, when it comes to important and complex issues that some readers may not be overly familiar with, there’s also a duty to inform.

Noakes spent a lot of time delving into blue hydrogen, which he wrote is being “championed” by the oil and gas sector as a stepping stone to greener hydrogen.

Blue hydrogen is created through a process called steam reforming, breaking methane — a hydrocarbon and primary component of natural gas — into hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2), and coupling that with another process that is supposed to capture the CO2 before it gets into the atmosphere.

The article quoted an expert in the area, Robert W. Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, who basically dismissed blue hydrogen. Howarth said in part there are only two blue hydrogen plants “anywhere in the world,” and that the plants “have not even tried to capture the large amount of carbon dioxide generated from burning the natural gas that powers the steam methane reforming process.”

No experts working in the hydrogen industry were quoted in this story. (Tim Fryer, the Star editor who handled the piece, says he erred in not pushing Noakes to do this.)

By making a quick call to Air Products, the company that received the whopping federal subsidy earlier this month for their new $1.6-billion facility (it will be operational in 2024, the company says), Noakes would have been able to mention that Air Products plans to put in place an auto-thermal reformer, a different process based on advanced technology the company says will allow for a greater capture of CO2, at over 95 per cent. Electricity powered by hydrogen will offset the remaining five per cent of CO2 to get to net zero, the company says.

The advanced gasification process uses oxygen, which allows for the capture of a more concentrated form of CO2, explains Simon Moore, a vicepresident with Air Products.

Hydrogen is largely used to clean transportation fuels such as diesel, reducing harmful sulphur in the fuel, thus reducing those emissions. Edmonton is using hydrogen-powered buses. Those in the industry also argue that for transporting purposes, hydrogen can be converted to ammonia, which has higher storage capacity. Ammonia can also be easily converted back to hydrogen.

In its report, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector,” the International Energy Agency says one of the key pillars of decarbonization — achieving the quick reduction in CO2 over the next 30 years — includes electrification, renewables, and hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels.

“If we can sequester — (i.e. isolate or cut) — carbon, then we have a huge advantage as a country economically,” argues Dennis Gazarek, a reader who reached out to the Star after going over Noakes’ piece.

Gazarek describes himself as a “practical environmentalist” (pro-wind, nuclear and solar) who has studied the hydrogen industry closely for decades. The world will need a mix of energy solutions in the future, he says, including hydrogen.

To me, hydrogen clearly has its pros and cons, and remains a work in progress if it’s to truly become a “fuel of the future.”

But when you’re telling a story about a topic this nuanced, there are important elements that readers need to be given upfront.

Author: Ray Nakano

Ray is a retired, third generation Japanese Canadian born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario along with his 4 younger sisters. He resides in Toronto where he worked for the Ontario Government for 28 years. Ray currently practises in 2 Buddhist traditions: Jodo Shinshu and that of Thich Nhat Hanh. Ray is passionate about climate action and very concerned about our Climate Crisis. He has been actively involved in the ClimateFast group (https://climatefast.ca) for the past 3 years. He works to bring awareness of our Climate Crisis to others. He has created the myclimatechange.home.blog website, for tracking climate-related news articles, reports, and organizations. He is always looking for opportunities through the work of ClimateFast to reach out to communities, politicians, and governments to communicate about our Climate Crisis. He is married and has 2 daughters and 2 grandchildren. He says: “Our world is in dire straits. Doing nothing is not an option. We must do everything we can to create a liveable future for our children, our grandchildren, and all future generations.”

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