Beshear, oil and gas leaders pitch using fossil fuels to make hydrogen fuel in Kentucky

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear gives the State of the Commonwealth address in Frankfort. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Arden Barnes)
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear gives the State of the Commonwealth address in Frankfort. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Arden Barnes)

This story is by the Kentucky Lantern, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. More of Kentucky Lantern’s work can be found at kentuckylantern.com. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Gov. Andy Beshear joined the lobbying organization for Kentucky’s oil and gas industries Wednesday to pitch a new energy future for the commonwealth: creating hydrogen fuel for generating electricity, transportation and more through the use of natural gas.

The Democratic governor speaking before the inaugural Kentucky Hydrogen Summit in downtown Louisville, organized by the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association, touted hydrogen as playing a key future role in supplying the state’s industries, from carmakers to bourbon, with affordable, reliable energy.

“In this space, hydrogen, the blue gas of the Bluegrass … is quickly emerging as an important low-carbon energy source for a variety of uses,” Beshear said. “We want to be one of the winners in this development of the hydrogen market.”

Hydrogen isn’t a new fuel source, but it’s been getting renewed attention in the commonwealth. Kentucky in the past year joined two multi-state “hubs” — the Appalachian Regional Hydrogen Hub and the Midwest Hydrogen Coalition — to promote more investments and collaboration. The state’s future energy strategy plan also includes the promotion of hydrogen fuel.

Advocates for hydrogen tout it as a clean source of energy that can have lower carbon emissions or even be carbon-neutral compared to other sources. While burning hydrogen itself is carbon-free, the production of it — separating the hydrogen from other elements, such as taking it out of methane, the main component of natural gas — is often not.

The methods of hydrogen production are described by the industry through different colors. Most hydrogen production across the country is “grey” hydrogen, or separating out the hydrogen from methane in natural gas. Such hydrogen production is used in oil refining, fertilizer production and food processing, releasing carbon dioxide in the process.

The Kentucky Oil and Gas Association’s summit is advocating instead for “blue” hydrogen, a production process similar to “grey” hydrogen, but the subsequent carbon emissions are captured and stored underground to make the process carbon neutral.

Questions about climate effects

Critics say this method doesn’t take into account leakage of methane — the most potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere from the process of drilling for natural gas, and that carbon capture technology vital to making the method carbon neutral in the past has struggled with becoming economically viable. 

Within the last year, though, the number of carbon capture and storage projects has seen significant growth coinciding with additional government support for the technology, such as increased subsidies passed in the Democrat-supported Inflation Reduction Act.

One recent study found the production of hydrogen using natural gas, even with carbon capture technology, still produces “substantial” carbon emissions in part because of methane leaks from drilling. The most recent report by the United Nations says global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by almost half by 2030 to limit the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

“Green” hydrogen, by comparison, uses power from renewable energy sources like solar or wind to separate hydrogen from water, a process known as water electrolysis, considered to be more expensive to produce hydrogen compared to natural gas.

Wes Cate, president of the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association, in an interview with the Lantern, said fossil fuel industries understand they “can always do better,” particularly with plugging methane leaks and tracking carbon emissions from the production of hydrogen.

“We’re all looking at how do we reduce our methane emissions on the pipe and starting to certify and responsibly source natural gas. I think everybody’s understanding is that the world is moving towards a carbon certified market,” Cate said. “When you do make hydrogen, you can look back and say, ‘Here’s how much emissions I’ve had with that.’ And I think the (emissions) data is what the industry is really trying to drive towards.”

Cate said this decade into the 2030s is when a “slew” of hydrogen projects could come online in the region, and the summit is primarily about getting hydrogen producers, consumers, transporters and government officials in the same room to talk about the fuel source’s potential.

That includes conversation around pipeline infrastructure, which Kentucky currently has for natural gas but not hydrogen.

“Companies can look at how we participate in this, how do we invest in this, and how do we look at where our companies need to be 10 years from now,” Cate said.