EHP’s deputy director, Patrick Dooling, received a B.S. degree in geosciences from Penn State University and an M.S. degree in geology from the University of Utah. He previously worked as a petroleum geologist and project manager in Houston, TX, before entering the nonprofit world. Here’s what he had to say about carbon capture and underground storage (CCUS) specifically related to regional hydrogen hubs, projects the U.S. Department of Energy recently announced.
In October 2023, the U.S. Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) announced federal funding for seven Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs across the country, including the Appalachian Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) spanning Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. According to OCED, the ARCH2 blue hydrogen hub will use shale gas to “produce low-cost clean hydrogen and permanently store the associated carbon emissions.” While full details of the project have not been made public yet, we already know that blue hydrogen poses very real threats to public health.
Blue hydrogen production requires the extraction of fossil fuels including shale gas as feeder stock, which will lead to more shale gas wells being drilled in areas already bearing the toxic legacy of this heavy industry. In generating hydrogen, frontline residents will be left to bear the health burdens of more gas wells and all the associated infrastructure—truck traffic, pipelines, compressor stations, and more. Before any hydrogen is even produced, it’s already clear that this cannot be considered a “clean” product.
Setting these critical concerns aside, the idea that blue hydrogen with carbon capture is a part of the solution to the climate crisis is misleading. A 2021 study by researchers at Cornell and Stanford Universities estimates that the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning shale gas for heat, largely due to the methane emissions during the shale gas lifecycle. The researchers’ analysis also assumes that carbon dioxide is captured and stored indefinitely, which they consider “an optimistic and unproven assumption.” So, to understand the full cycle of blue hydrogen projects and their “clean” promises, let's focus on the concept of carbon capture and potential impacts to public health.
What is Carbon Capture?
Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) is touted by some as an important tool to combat the climate crisis. The goal of geological carbon capture and storage is to remove carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere and permanently store it in geological formations deep below earth’s surface. This process involves three main components:
Capture: Remove CO₂ either directly from the air or at point sources, such as blue hydrogen facilities, coal- and gas-fired power plants, etc.
Transport: CO₂ is most commonly compressed and liquified for transport through a network of pipelines from the capture point to the storage or utilization facility.
Storage: Inject CO₂ via wells drilled into deep underground geological formations that can act as reservoirs to store the CO₂. These reservoirs must be porous enough to store CO₂, but overlain by impermeable, non-porous rocks that prevent the gas from escaping back to the surface. Most commonly, CO₂ is stored in depleted oil fields or saline aquifers.
While it may seem like a promising solution, in practice CCUS is fraught with uncertainties, risks, and issues.
The Costs of Capture
Most CCUS projects planned at infrastructure such as power plants target capturing 90% of the CO₂ emitted, which still leaves significant quantities emitted to the atmosphere. Additionally, capturing carbon requires considerable amounts of energy, which often comes in the form of electricity from burning shale gas. Recent analysis of direct air capture suggests it takes as much energy as is produced by the burning of fossil fuels in the first place. Other studies suggest that future direct air capture would require as much as 25% of the global energy supply, as well as an unrealistic quantity of raw materials.
While OCED claims these projects will produce “low cost” hydrogen, carbon capture comes at a considerable cost. According to the Ohio River Valley Institute, widespread adoption of CCUS could cost $100 billion per year and would raise the retail rate of electricity by 25%. The same study indicates that American households will carry this cost burden in taxes and an average increase of $293 in their annual electric bills.
Carbon dioxide (CO₂) is a potent greenhouse gas and one of many pollutants produced at industrial facilities. Many facilities producing CO₂ also emit hazardous and toxic pollutants such as methane, PM2.5, nitrogen oxide, ozone, formaldehyde, benzene, and VOCs, all of which pose serious health risks. Capturing only the CO₂ still leaves frontline communities potentially exposed to a wide range of other toxic pollutants.
Studies have found that these pollutants raise the risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, heart disease and heart attacks, birth defects and pre-term deliveries, mental health issues, and cancer, among other health impacts. Those with existing health conditions may suffer worsening symptoms and are more likely to end up in the hospital.
CCUS will require the construction of a vast network of pipelines to transport CO₂ from capture to storage locations. These pipelines must be constructed using materials designed specifically to transport compressed, chilled, and liquified CO₂, meaning that existing shale gas pipelines cannot be repurposed. Estimates from Princeton University and the U.S. Department of Energy suggest that as many as 96,000 miles of new pipelines could be required. Similar to infrastructure used to produce and transport shale gas, CCUS infrastructure can fail at any stage of the process and pose serious, even fatal, health risks.
In February 2020, a pipeline carrying CO₂ through the rural town of Satartia, Mississippi, ruptured, sending a cloud of CO₂ mixed with hydrogen sulfide dispersed across the landscape in a green fog. As CO₂ displaced oxygen in the air, residents and first responders struggled to breathe and lost consciousness. Over 200 people were evacuated and over 45 hospitalized. Emergency response vehicles entering the area as well as cars evacuating stalled or could not start as their combustion engines could not operate without oxygen. This harrowing tragedy was chronicled by HuffPost and local news outlets like the Clarion Ledger. The serious public health threats from pipelines carrying CO₂ cannot be overlooked.
Can Carbon be “Utilized”?
Perhaps, to make matters worse, the primary use of currently captured CO₂ is actually to extract more oil and gas in the United States. In a method called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), CO₂ is injected into oil-producing rock formations to push out the hydrocarbons from the pore space and into the well. This technology has existed since the 1970s and is a relatively common practice in oil fields, such as the Permian Basin in West Texas.
According to Dr. Charles Harvey at M.I.T., of the 13 operating CCUS projects in the United States currently receiving federal subsidies, the majority of CO₂ currently being sequestered comes from the production of methane gas. Twelve of these facilities use the captured CO2 in enhanced oil recovery, thus simply generating more harmful emissions and exacerbating the climate crisis. Carbon capture used to produce more fossil fuels will only lead to more greenhouse gas and toxic chemical emissions and cannot be viewed as a “clean” or permanent solution.
A Permanent Solution?
The ARCH2 hydrogen hub alludes to "permanent storage” of CO₂. CCUS proponents refer to it as a permanent solution, but that may be far from reality. Geologically, faults and fractures (either naturally occurring or produced during injection), can provide pathways for CO2 to leak from the reservoir back into the atmosphere. There are also concerns about induced seismicity from underground injection. Depleted oil fields, a common storage location, are dotted with abandoned and often poorly maintained wells that could serve as sources of leaks.
Moreover, the infrastructure used in storing gas underground is also susceptible. Here in Pennsylvania, we need only look at the nearby Rager Mountain gas storage facility in Jackson Township. While not a permanent CO₂ storage field like those in some CCUS projects, the Rager Mountain facility temporarily stores methane in underground reservoirs before transporting it for end use. However, for 13 days in November 2022, 1.4 billion cubic feet (bcf) of methane gas vented directly to the atmosphere during an uncontrolled release caused by corrosion-induced failure of well casing. This incident alone is estimated to have erased the emissions savings of nearly half of the total electric vehicle sales that year.
Rager Mountain was not an isolated incident. In 2016, a gas well at the Aliso Canyon underground storage reservoir in Southern California leaked 4.6 bcf of methane over 100 days. All infrastructure used in oil and gas development and CCUS is subject to failure and can emit toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases, particularly when not properly maintained. The liability and responsibility of long-term operations and maintenance of CCUS facilities is an important question. It is unclear who will bear the responsibility of maintaining these sites if operators go out of business, but taxpayers have shouldered similar costs in the past.
Unfortunately, CCUS is a false solution plagued with issues throughout its life cycle. We at EHP believe that federal funding from OCED will only lead to more shale gas production in Appalachia and beyond. The reality of CCUS is that continued reliance on and utilization of fossil fuels will only make the world, and its people, sicker. Investment in the equitable development of renewables—not fossil fuels—at every stage of energy production is the only viable path towards climate resilience and healthy communities.