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Governor's push for hydrogen hub in New Mexico faces serious challenges

Natural gas tanks Lybrook gas plant_Wild Earth Guardians_Flickr_CC2.0license.jpg
Wild Earth Guardians via Flickr
Creative Commons. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
Natural gas tanks Lybrook gas plant_Wild Earth Guardians_Flickr_CC2.0license.jpg

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made the creation of a hydrogen hub in New Mexico a priority in the current legislative session. But despite claims of this fuel being more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, there are significant issues with developing hydrogen. That’s according to Capital & Main’s Jerry Redfern, who spoke with KUNM’s Megan Kamerick.

REDFERN: Hydrogen is actually a super cool thing as a fuel. I mean, aside from like the whole Hindenburg going up in flames. That's what a lot of people maybe first think of. Part of the reason it went up in flames is that hydrogen contains a lot of energy within it. And you can use it in a couple of different ways that are super clever, super neat. You can burn it and it actually burns fairly cleanly compared to other gases, like say, natural gas, but it does still pollute a bit. Then the super clean thing you can do with it is run it through a fuel cell, which is a funky contraption where you sort of jam it into the fuel cell, and it reacts inside there, and creates a little bit of heat, a little bit of water and a whole bunch of electricity. That's a very green, very clean process.

KUNM: What are the drawbacks that have so many environmental groups opposing this plan by the governor?

REDFERN: The main thing is how you make the hydrogen. The vast overwhelming majority of hydrogen is made from natural gas, natural gas is the feedstock. To simplify the whole process you highly compressed it, you get really hot, and you essentially start breaking hydrogen atoms off of the methane that's in the natural gas. And then you collect those hydrogen atoms. But then what you're left over with is a whole bunch of carbon dioxide, you know, the most common greenhouse gas that we have. And the problem is, what do you do with that carbon dioxide. And to this point, generally speaking, big manufacturing facilities where they make hydrogen, they just vented to the air. Some places have tried to do what's called carbon capture where you compress that CO2, you compress it into a smaller volume, and then inject it underground. But that's the big question is, what do you do with that leftover CO2? And it's really hard to do stuff with that leftover CO2, and that's what has the environmentalists concerned.

KUNM: Carbon sequestration, as you write, is really difficult. Why is it so complicated?

REDFERN: If you kind of think about it from like, a junior high school physics point of view, you're trying to take a gas and you're trying to shove it into a rock underground. So there's a lot of energy that's involved in trying to pull that off. But there's also a lot of really complicated geology that goes into trying to pull that off. You have to find the right rock formations that can hold it and don't make it back. I mean, the whole point of carbon sequestration, when done this way, is to keep it there, essentially, forever. It can't leak back out. That's exactly what we're trying to keep from happening, right? You know, the thing is, there was another story that I came across today of all things, that's talks about the largest carbon sequestration project that's attached to a coal fired power plant, actually up in Canada. And it's totally missing its goals, just because it's so hard to take such vast amounts of CO2 that are produced in these processes, and compress it and then shove it underground, and then hope that it stays there.

KUNM: And you reported that there are two companies planning projects here, and one would be the largest hydrogen plant in the world.

REDFERN: Yeah, that's the Escalante plant between here and Gallup. It's going to take a phenomenal amount of natural gas to pull that off. The big question is going to be how he's going to be able to sequester all that carbon.

KUNM: And Environment Secretary James Kenney told you, they don't have enough staff to keep up with the existing spills, leaking pipes, the other issues with oil and gas development. So how are they going to oversee this, that also means burning more natural gas?

REDFERN: That is a fantastic question. And that's one that I think is probably going to be asked loudly at the legislative session. The most obvious answer to that would be that the state's going to have to spend a lot more money, both at the Environment Department and at the Oil Conservation Division, to hire more people and buy more technology to be able to monitor all of these wells and all of these pipelines that currently, to be blunt, leak quite a bit. Those leaks can be as damaging as anything else further down the line. Because those leaks of pure natural gas are mostly methane and methane, as a greenhouse gas, is up to 80 times more potent than just the CO2 that you get after you burn the natural gas. So small leaks actually have huge effects.

KUNM: Jerry Redfern with Capital & Main, thank you so much.

REDFERN: Thank you, Megan. Thanks for having me on.

Find all of Jerry Redfern’s Capital & Main energy stories online.

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.