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Newsletter | March 20, 2024

The Next Frontier Of Corporate Polluting: Hydrogen

ClimateCorporate Crackdown
The Next Frontier Of Corporate Polluting: Hydrogen

The corporate polluters are at it again with a new push for “clean energy”—and against government safeguards to ensure that it’s clean. 

The very same chemical companies spending millions on lobbying against federal legislation and regulations that would force the chemical industry to clean up widespread “forever chemical” pollution are now going all-in on hydrogen as a “clean” form of energy. We should learn from the chemical industry’s track record on evading transparency and accountability for the “forever chemicals” now found in the blood of up to 97 percent of Americans to be suspicious of how responsibly this industry will develop clean hydrogen.

For those unfamiliar with “forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS (short for per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances), they are “a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.” PFAS trigger scientific concern because, as the “forever chemicals” moniker suggests, they don’t break down in the environment, but instead stick around, building up in everything from soil to drinking water to the bodies of people and animals. PFAS have repeatedly made the news already in 2024, as new studies have come out indicating the widespread presence of PFAS in everything from nearly half of the U.S. drinking water supply to packaged tea and processed meats to turf sports fields

PFAS are associated with a host of health risks. The EPA and CDC have acknowledged peer-reviewed scientific studies that show that exposure to PFAS may lead to reproductive and developmental effects in children, immune system damage, and increase the risk of developing cancer. Research is ongoing to confirm links between the various substances in the PFAS category and these and other worrying health outcomes. 

Considering how blithely these companies shirk responsibility for polluting our environment to the extent that human fetuses and the rain now show traces of forever chemicals, it’s hard to trust them when they say that hydrogen’s a climate winner.

Proponents of hydrogen laud it as a clean-burning alternative to natural gas and an energy carrier comparable to batteries. In reality, as we’ve written about at length, the vast majority of hydrogen production in the United States comes from a highly polluting process involving natural gas and steam. Hydrogen can be produced without natural gas, via electricity, but the vast majority of electricity is produced by fossil fueled power plants as well. So, while burning hydrogen is technically emissions-free, if the electrolysis used to create that hydrogen relies on fossil fuels or polluting forms of energy, the climate impact of “green” hydrogen can be worse than just burning fossil-fuels. And due to how hydrogen interacts with other gasses in the atmosphere, hydrogen has over 32 times the indirect global warming potential of carbon dioxide. 

These are some of the companies invested in the hydrogen economy that also lobbied aggressively against being on the hook for PFAS clean up: 

  • Chemours, which has been part of the aggressive, multimillion dollar lobbying blitz against strong PFAS clean up, is part of the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA), a coalition of companies advocating for hydrogen as “clean, safe, and reliable.” It is worth noting Chemours opposed stronger hydrogen standards that would ensure they’re clean. 
  • 3M spent $17.9 million lobbying against the PFAS Act of 2019, which criminalized PFASS in sewers. 3M is currently expanding its research and redevelopment into green hydrogen. 
  • Dow spent $23.4 million on PFAS lobbying between 2019-2022, largely centered around the LIFT America Act (which would have created a grant program to help filter PFAS). In April, Dowselected Linde as a gas partner supplying hydrogen as a feedstock for Dow’s plastics facility in Canada.
  • In 2021, Dominion Energy lobbied Congress in regards to the landmark Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $2 billion in funding to address contaminants in drinking water like PFAS. Dominion Energy also happens to be a member of the Green Hydrogen Coalition. 
  • Siemens Energy also lobbied Congress in regards to the CLEAN Futures Act, and also happens to be a Green Hydrogen Coalition member
  • Norfolk Southern, which was party to a lawsuit from the Justice Department over the derailment and toxic chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio, lobbied Congress on the Infrastructure law as well, and utilized hydrogen in its technologies.

These companies have clearly demonstrated that they aren’t committed to preventing their products from poisoning communities. Not only did they fail to prevent widespread pollution in the first place; they then actively spent their money lobbying to argue that they shouldn’t have to clean up their own messes. Rather than, say, spending that money to clean up the messes.

These corporations’ and coalitions’ track records raise immediate red flags regarding the legitimacy of these corporation’s future claims about how clean their hydrogen production is—not that we needed more indicators, given the hydrogen risks and drawbacks that scientists and environmental advocates have been pointing out for years

The Biden Administration also has tools to crack down on many of these polluters. Recently, the FDA announced an initiative to stop the use of certain PFAS in food packaging, based on a “voluntary commitment” by companies to stop selling the products, which the FDA plans to continue to monitor. This kind of agreement should be rigorously reinforced by the use of investigations and penalties by the agencies entrusted with public health, to hold corporations accountable when they flout safety guidelines and laws. 

In February, we commented on recent reporting by E&E News that the Energy Department was pushing the Treasury Department to align its clean hydrogen tax credit guidance with industrial polluters’ demands. We argued that it’s crucial that Treasury resist this industry pressure—even when it’s coming from their colleagues at the Energy Department—and address the potential loopholes in its tax credit guidance that could promote the growth of a so-called “clean” hydrogen industry that simply continues many forms of pollution. 

The Biden administration must remain vigilant to the publicity campaigns and streams of lobbying money that extractive corporations deploy in their pursuit of maximal profits without regard to the impact on people, communities, and the planet. Otherwise, the same playbook we’ve seen with environmental and health disasters will continue to repeat itself—with continually escalating consequences. 

Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

No ‘Clean’ Gas on a Livable Planet | Opinion

House Dems Donate to Centrist Group That Undermines Their Agenda

RELEASE: Virginia General Assembly Must Investigate Leonard Leo’s Influence On State’s Largest Public Research University

Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Touch

Trump Lackeys Run to Rescue Ailing Bank in Predictable—And Telling—Move

Ken Paxton, America First Legal, and Premonitions of Project 2025

Senate Approves Maloney as Ambassador

Major Data Safety Concerns in Walmart’s Potential Vizio Acquisition

Header image, “Foam containing PFAS along the shoreline of the Huron River in Michigan.png,” is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

ClimateCorporate Crackdown

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