In summary

Instead of delivering innovations to stop climate change, companies are remarketing fossil fuels as clean fuels.

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By Sara Gersen, Special to CalMatters

Sara Gersen is a clean energy attorney on Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign and the co-author of “Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future.”

This commentary is in response to “Clean fuels and electrification both needed to meet California’s climate goals”; Commentary, Oct. 26, 2021

California is a key laboratory for climate solutions, but it’s also a hotbed for companies to greenwash polluting technologies and remarket fossil fuels as something cleaner. 

Greenwashing is dangerous, distracting us from proven solutions and pressing policymakers to approve policies that could lock us into risky fossil fuel investments. With extreme wildfires and drought already on the scene, we clearly can’t afford to delay climate action. 

A textbook example of greenwashing is the hype around hydrogen. Most hydrogen is incredibly dirty: less than 1% of hydrogen today is produced using renewable energy. Most hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels and is deployed in oil refining. Globally, hydrogen production emits more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire country of Germany.

Hydrogen produced by splitting water atoms using renewable energy is called “green hydrogen,” and it’s the only kind of hydrogen that has a real role to play in a clean energy future. That role is limited and specific in sectors of the economy we can’t easily electrify, such as shipping, high-heat industrial processes and long-distance trucking.

Despite marketing to the contrary, it makes no sense to pipe hydrogen into our homes and buildings to burn in appliances. For one thing, the pipeline system and household appliances that were designed for fossil gas can’t safely handle meaningful amounts of hydrogen. Burning hydrogen in home appliances would also risk families’ health by emitting nitrogen oxides. And we certainly couldn’t afford leaks of hydrogen, which is both highly flammable and a potent greenhouse gas, in the notoriously leaky gas distribution system. 

In the transportation sector, green hydrogen could help fuel vehicles like long-haul trucks, but green hydrogen can’t compete in sectors where battery-powered electric vehicles are here today or on the horizon. It requires two or three times as much wind and solar to power a car with green hydrogen than an equivalent electric car. 

Likewise, “renewable natural gas” has been boosted by a marketing push and is often used to justify expansion of the gas distribution system. But despite the squeaky clean label, “renewable natural gas” often comes from environmentally detrimental sources, like manure lagoons at mega-dairies. 

Furthermore, renewable natural gas has a scalability problem. It’s an inherently limited product being marketed as a major climate solution for California. The gas industry’s own research found that after two decades of ramping up supply and production, renewable natural gas could only replace 13% of the existing demand for gas. We should remember that when a gas company like Southern California Gas Co. touts “clean fuels” such as renewable natural gas or hydrogen produced through fossil fuels. 

When policymakers see these kinds of claims, it’s time to scrutinize them, especially when it comes from companies whose business model is centered on fossil fuels.

Case in point: a recent decision from the California Public Utilities Commission found that SoCalGas misused their customers’ money on opposition to strong energy efficiency standards. SoCalGas used its ratepayers’ money for a campaign to keep California hooked on natural gas, committing “appreciable harm to the regulatory process.” 

The company paid a climate denier to speak at an industry event and strategized with fossil fuel trade groups about the best ways to keep inefficient gas appliances on the market. SoCalGas even created a front group to undermine the democratic processes of California cities that considered adopting “reach codes” supporting the construction of modern, all-electric buildings.

Instead of delivering innovations that stop the worst forms of climate change, SoCalGas has focused on gaming the regulatory system to maintain investments in fossil fuels. 

We have proven solutions already on the table: electrifying our transportation sector and our appliances, and running that all on a clean energy grid. Fossil fuel companies will tell us over and over again that they are part of the solution. But California’s future is electric – and let no gas company tell you otherwise.

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