EU must take on its methane problem before turning to hydrogen

By Mark Brownstein

Facing dangerous levels of warming, Europe aspires to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. The oil and gas industry want us to believe natural gas can play a constructive role in this green energy future. And right now, these companies are lining up behind the idea that European Union policymakers should invest heavily in new incentives for hydrogen as a way to store and deliver energy for transport and the electric system.
Hydrogen separated from water using renewable electricity — so called ‘green hydrogen’ — might be economically viable someday. But for now, the cheapest way to make hydrogen is by converting natural gas. Natural gas is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions; it also consists mostly of methane, which is itself a greenhouse pollutant, with over 80 times the near-term warming power of carbon dioxide.
When it comes to climate change and achieving a net-zero carbon future, natural gas solves nothing unless both carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with its production, distribution and use are fully controlled. Opening up a whole new market for converting gas to hydrogen without clearly establishing how those emissions will be dealt with would only make a serious problem much worse.
The European Commission recently released two major energy policy strategies in which methane and role of natural gas are at issue.

Two new strategies
First is the Commission’s sweeping Sector Integration strategy , which brings together all elements of the energy puzzle — utilities, buildings, industry and transport — under a single, unified framework designed to replace fossil fuels with energy efficiency and renewable electricity. Where direct electrification or renewables aren’t feasible, the plan would look to other solutions, including hydrogen.
The second new strategy provides a detailed vision for hydrogen , describing it as “essential” to meeting the 2050 carbon neutrality goal and EU obligations under the Paris Agreement. It will be administered by a Hydrogen Alliance committee (whose board is stacked with oil and gas executives). The stakes behind the plan are hardly trivial: an estimated €180-470 billion in new EU hydrogen production capacity, and hundreds of millions more to adapt end-use capabilities.
The Commission strategy draws careful distinction between “clean” or “renewable” versus fossil-based hydrogen, and notes the high life cycle greenhouse emissions of hydrogen made from gas. Yet the document contains only a single passing reference to methane — suggesting that a crucial piece of the climate equation has not yet received the attention it demands.
The EU methane strategy
Fortunately, as the hydrogen strategy notes, the Commission is expected to release a new methane strategy in the fall. Getting these rules right is an absolute prerequisite before any hydrogen subsidies can possibly...