Massachusetts Medical Society: The False Promise of Fossil Fuel-Derived Hydrogen

The False Promise of Fossil Fuel-Derived Hydrogen

Dr. Brita E. Lundberg
Dr. Brita E. Lundberg

Dr. Janet Limke
Dr. Janet Limke

Eden Diamond
Eden Diamond

Hydrogen gas is portrayed in the press as a clean fuel — but is it?

Hydrogen made from water and renewable electricity is commonly referred to as “green” hydrogen and accounts for 1 percent of commercial use of the gas in the United States. In contrast, fossil fuel–derived hydrogen (variously labeled black, gray, blue, or brown by marketers) is derived from methane and coal; it accounts for 99 percent of the hydrogen used in the United States, and its production is associated with large greenhouse gas emissions, which have significant health sequelae and are a known driver of climate disruption. Understanding these distinctions is critically important because there is great interest in marketing all hydrogen production as a “green” alternative to natural gas when in fact there is little commercially available green hydrogen.

A resolution proposed to the MMS House of Delegates (HOD) at its December 2021 Interim Meeting, “Raising clinician awareness of the health risks of fossil fuel derived hydrogen,” was referred to the MMS Board of Trustees, which unanimously approved the resolution in January. The resolution, subsequently accepted by the HOD, set MMS policy to recognize and educate members and health professionals regarding the risks of fossil fuel–derived hydrogen and to advocate to the state legislature, appropriate agencies, and the AMA on this topic.

Fossil Fuel–Derived Hydrogen Isn’t Green

While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is predominantly found bonded to other molecules in chemical compounds like water (H2O) and methane (CH4). While burning hydrogen gas does not produce carbon dioxide, its byproducts are water and the well-known air pollutant nitrogen oxide (NOX). Yet the considerable health and climate impacts of hydrogen are associated with its manufacture from fossil fuels. Currently, most hydrogen gas is produced by steam reformation, or extracting the hydrogen atoms from methane (natural gas), which is composed of a single carbon atom with four hydrogen atoms attached; this process produces high carbon dioxide emissions.

In sum, while hydrogen is portrayed as a “carbon-free” fuel because it can be produced from renewable energy, only 1 percent is generated renewably. The other 99 percent is derived from fossil fuels, mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Serious Risks to Health, Safety, and Climate

The manufacture and use of fossil fuel–derived hydrogen pose three serious risks to human health, all of which disproportionately affect vulnerable populations.

Risks to respiratory health. There is a significant risk to respiratory health due to air pollution created both through the production of hydrogen and through the burning of fuel composed of blended hydrogen and methane. The amount of NOX can increase up to six-fold as the amount of hydrogen is increased in a hydrogen-natural gas blend. Oxides of nitrogen and air pollution are triggers for asthma and COPD, an important health concern in Massachusetts, where prevalence of both is elevated.

Fossil Fuel illustration
SpicyTruffel/iStock / Getty Images Plus

Safety risks due to high explosive potential. Hydrogen is corrosive and highly combustible: it can ignite at almost any air-to-fuel ratio and is four times more explosive than methane gas. Moreover, adding it to natural gas would expand the latter’s explosive limits, according to Gordon Richardson, an electrical and mechanical engineer with 40 years of experience in fossil fuel technology. Therefore, there is significant concern about piping the mix into homes and businesses.

In addition, adding hydrogen to methane would make pipelines brittle and increase the likelihood of leaks. This would not only increase the risk of explosion but also increase methane leaks throughout this infrastructure. Massachusetts already has over 20,000 methane leaks across the state due to its aging natural gas infrastructure and lack of preventive maintenance. When methane leaks, so do the many air pollutants that travel with it, including benzene, a volatile organic compound and carcinogen.

Yet Massachusetts utility companies have requested authorization to mix hydrogen with methane, which the companies describe as a “renewable” fuel source.

Negative climate impact. When CH4 is used to produce hydrogen, the process emits carbon dioxide, an important driver of climate disruption. This technology has a substantial greenhouse gas footprint. Even if carbon capture and storage (CCS) is utilized to make hydrogen, the carbon footprint is more than 20 percent greater than burning methane gas or coal for heat and some 60 percent greater than burning diesel oil for heat, according to a 2021 article by Stanford and Cornell scientists in Energy Science Engineering.

Negative equity impact. This increased air pollution will magnify the negative health effects on vulnerable communities who already experience higher rates of illnesses due to their inequitable exposure to air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Natural gas-hydrogen blends would be moved through existing power plants and compressor stations, which are overwhelmingly situated among underserved and low-income neighborhoods. Blending hydrogen with methane will maintain and increase leakage of a polluting infrastructure that already creates health inequities. In sum, increasing usage of fossil fuel–derived hydrogen will magnify the inequitable burden of health impacts from air pollution and climate disruption on low-income and minority communities.

MMS Leads Awareness of Environmental Health Harms

Just as the MMS showed tremendous leadership in increasing public awareness around the negative health impacts of second-hand tobacco smoke in the 1990s, it is now advocating about the health harms of fossil fuel–derived hydrogen.

Kalli Sullivan, MD, resident member of the Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health, offered compelling reasons for the MMS to continue to educate the public and advocate on this issue at the state legislature: “We must move away from arguing about the boundaries of ‘public health’ and ‘medicine’ ... as it is our duty as physicians to care about health impacts for community members and communities as a whole.”

The MMS advocacy team has already weighed in on current proposals being considered by the Department of Public Utilities that would increase hydrogen use. The MMS’s successful advocacy at the American Medical Association resulted in a similar resolution raising physician awareness of the climate, health, and safety risks of hydrogen being adopted as policy in June 2022.

In Conclusion

Green hydrogen is a rare and very useful fuel that should be used judiciously. Truly green hydrogen that is derived from renewable sources like wind and solar will be important for decarbonizing hard-to-electrify industries like maritime shipping, aviation, and selected transportation applications, and for long-term energy storage. It is otherwise an inefficient use of renewable energy since wind or solar could be used directly. The limited supply of green hydrogen should be reserved for such applications.

In contrast, fossil fuel–derived hydrogen is neither “green” nor renewable. In Massachusetts, current proposals for its use will increase the state’s dependence on petrochemicals, worsen air pollution, and exacerbate climate disruption. Proposals to blend hydrogen with natural gas perpetuates health inequities made worse by burning fossil fuels and poses additional safety risks. As physicians, we need to emphasize the reasons the “secondhand smoke” of fossil fuel–derived hydrogen is as nefarious, or more so, than cigarette smoke to our patients, to our planet, and to us.

For More Information

The webinar “A Crash Course on Hydrogen” from Food and Water Action Europe can be viewed here.

The white paper Why Burning Hydrogen in Buildings is Bad for Climate and for Health from Physicians for Social Responsibility can be read here.

Drs. Lunderg and Limke are chair and vice chair of the MMS Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health (CEOH) and cosponsored the hydrogen resolution that MMS passed in January. Dr. Limke also is a member of the MMS Board of Trustees. Eden Diamond is a second-year medical student at UMass Chan Medical School and a member of the CEOH.

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