Where can hydrogen create climate benefits?

EDF executive warns “we need to proceed on the basis of sound science” when it comes to clean hydrogen deployment.

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Photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images

Photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images

While debate rages within the hydrogen sector about the guidelines for tax credits, one energy and environmental protection veteran insists that the fuel's applications should focus on net climate benefits — which could mean fewer use cases than proponents have in mind.

  • The top line: Clean hydrogen is a zero-carbon emissions or near-zero-carbon emissions fuel touted as critical for decarbonizing heavy industry. The U.S Department of Energy announced last year that it would fund seven Regional Clean Hydrogen hubs with $7 billion to accelerate the deployment of blue and green hydrogen. But not everyone is bullish on the fuel's uses, especially given the potential environmental toll.
  • The current take: Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund is specifically wary of the climate impact of the fuel, and says it “still has profound impacts on the atmosphere when it is vented or leaked.” 

Although it is not a greenhouse gas, like carbon dioxide and methane, hydrogen contributes to global warming. When leaked into the atmosphere, the gas mixes with oxygen to create water vapor — the most abundant greenhouse gas. It also contributes to the development of tropospheric ozone, or ground level ozone, which unlike stratospheric ozone, is a harmful air pollutant that leads to the formation of smog.

That’s not all. “It works to prolong the life of methane in the atmosphere. So it makes the methane problem worse,” said Brownstein, in an interview on Columbia Energy Exchange.

There currently isn’t an effective way to measure hydrogen leakage, so “no one knows how much is being lost from today’s processes,” explained Brownstein. EDF is partnering with Aerodyne Research to develop new monitoring technologies, but they are not yet ready for commercial deployment. 

Brownstein is skeptical about the aggressive push toward clean hydrogen because it resembles the transition to natural gas in 2011 as an alternative to coal. EDF’s groundbreaking work on methane detection throughout the last decade pushed concerns about the environmental impact of gas into the mainstream, causing “people to rethink that rush to gas.” 

“What we learned from that experience is that getting the science early on, being clear-eyed about the carbon footprint of alternatives and the environmental attributes of alternatives is incredibly important to achieving energy transition in a way that really is effective,” said Brownstein. 

Even with the downsides, Brownstein thinks clean hydrogen will play a role in decarbonization. He specifically points to sectors that are outside the reach of electrification that will still require molecules, like shipping, aviation, and chemical manufacturing.

“Where are you going to get those molecules from if you don't want to get them from hydrocarbons? And that's where hydrogen comes in,” he said.

He also believes clean hydrogen should be used to replace gray and black hydrogen, which release carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. “Even with hydrogen leakage, you're likely to achieve some kind of real climate benefit,” he added. 

But the climate benefits of other applications are murky, Brownstein warned: “The mistake…is to put a lot of capital into blue hydrogen development where the climate impact of that relative to the continued use of fossil fuels is relatively marginal."

Blue hydrogen, which is made using natural gas — but includes capturing the carbon byproducts — is considered clean hydrogen. “In order for blue hydrogen to make sense, you have to have very high control efficiencies on CCUS,” which means 90% capture rate or higher. There is also the issue of methane and hydrogen leaks throughout the value chain. “I'm not saying that it can't be done, but I've yet to see it being done,” said Brownstein. 

Even green hydrogen, which does not produce any greenhouse gasses, can still have a negative climate impact. “If your business plan is to send that green hydrogen into a home through a gas utility pipeline, that's a poor use of hydrogen,” he explained. “It's very energy inefficient, and with the potential for leakage, it could be net negative relative to continuing to use methane.” 

“Let's not assume away some of the key challenges associated with…advanced hydrogen,” Brownstein cautioned. Instead, he wants to see those challenges addressed early on and not “just deploy a lot of stuff and somehow it all works out.” 

“That's a recipe for wasting a lot of time and a lot of capital,” he said.

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Mark Brownstein: I fundamentally believe that there is no energy company CEO that gets a free pass when it comes to wrestling with the science of climate change because, at the end of the day, this is about quality of life on the planet, and the business's usual path does clearly provide benefits to people, but it also imposes huge costs, and we're at a point now where those trade-offs are frankly no longer tolerable.

Jason Bordoff: Methane emissions from human activity are a leading cause of global warming, as methane is a potent greenhouse gas for trapping heat in the atmosphere. Methane leakage from the energy sector is just one of the many issues at the forefront today of questions over how the oil and gas industry is engaging in the clean energy transition. Importantly, that industry includes not just some of the companies that are household names but many national oil companies that collectively produce about half the world's oil and gas. They have committed to cutting methane emissions and working toward decarbonization following last year's COP28 meeting in Dubai. But the energy transition for all of these companies is a delicate balance, as they are responsible for generating revenue and ensuring energy security also for their countries.

So how will global pledges to decarbonize impact the oil and gas industry? What's the role for cleaner fuels like hydrogen in meeting growing energy demand? How much progress is being made to curb methane emissions? And what is the role of national oil companies in the clean energy transition? This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I'm Jason Bordoff.

Today on the show, Mark Brownstein. Mark is the Senior Vice President of Energy Transition at Environmental Defense Fund. He's been with EDF for almost two decades, working to halt the rise of global oil and gas emissions and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. Before joining EDF, Mark worked for Public Service Enterprise Group, a large electric and gas utility holding company in the United States. He's also taught energy policy right here at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. Last week, Mark and I met up at CERAWeek, an annual global energy conference hosted in Houston. We discussed the changes the conference has undergone on the last 20 years and the pace of the energy transition. We also talked about the importance of reducing methane, what the transition looks like for national oil companies and his views on cleaner fuel options such as hydrogen. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Mark Brownstein, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange, I think for the first time, which is hard to believe.

Mark Brownstein: Yeah, Jason, this is unbelievable. We've had so many conversations over bourbon, and this is the first time it's going to be recorded. Coffee.

Jason Bordoff: Coffee, not Bourbon, at 8:00 or so in the morning. Absolutely here at CERAWeek in Houston. But yeah, as you say, down at the Jersey Shore, other places around the world, sitting and talking about what's happening in the energy world, and the whole idea for this podcast when it started eight years ago was exactly that. People I would sit and have a coffee with or a drink with and learn so much from, and I wanted to share that with as many people as possible. So I'm glad we finally had a chance to do that. So maybe, in that spirit, just remind people or help... Not remind, tell people the work you do at the Environmental Defense Fund, how long you've been doing that, and how you came to do that work.

Mark Brownstein: Wow, now I wish I had a Bourbon. First of all, I came to Environmental Defense Fund 18 years ago from the electric and gas utility business, and that's actually not uncommon at EDF. We have a number of people that come to environmental advocacy after having spent time in government or industry, and I think it's part of what makes our group so effective because I think many of us have a good understanding as to the minds that we're trying to change.

Jason Bordoff: Not trying to hire people out of industry or with backgrounds in science and economics?

Mark Brownstein: Science and economics, finance. We have a whole team that comes out of the world of finance. The whole idea behind Environmental Defense Fund, of course, and this goes back to its origins back in 1967, is to get good scientific data, think rigorously about what it's telling you, and then take action based on that to shape policy, to shape corporate operating practices, to influence how finance thinks about environmental issues. It's been an evolution over the 50 some odd years of the organization, but science has always been at our core. That's what attracted me to the organization when I made the switch from the electric and gas utility business to EDF 18 years ago.

One of the other things that has been really great about Environmental Defense Fund is that we started as a US-based NGO, started in a little farmhouse on Long Island, actually, we are, today, really a global environmental advocacy organization. We have offices in the United States. We have offices in Europe and Brussels. We've been in China for over 30 years. We have an office in India. We do work in over 30 different countries around the world. So I think many people who know of EDF tend to think of us as a US NGO, but really we're global in how we think and how we act. My role at EDF is to lead our on energy transition and to think about those issues not just from a US perspective but from a global perspective.

Jason Bordoff: Say that's everything. Energy transition, that sounds like a lot, a very broad mandate. Talk a little bit about where the focus is there.

Mark Brownstein: So I put it into two buckets. One is working to clean up the energy system that we have today, and probably the signature initiative that we have in that bucket is the work that we've been doing to address methane pollution from the oil and gas industry. Methane from human activity causes nearly a third of the warming our planet is experiencing right now. Fossil fuels are a major source of that methane pollution, close to 40% of it. Oil and gas industry, as an industry, is probably the single largest source of methane emissions from human activities. What we've learned over the 12 plus years that we've been working on this issue is that while it's a pernicious pollutant, it's also very easy, relatively speaking, to address.

So that's a big area of focus, but as important as it is to reduce methane pollution, we don't solve the climate crisis just by focusing on methane. Of course, we have to reduce CO2. There's no credible analysis which says that you can get to any kind of climate stability on this planet without reducing fossil fuel use as part of your strategy to reduce CO2. You can't magically make it disappear and continue to use oil, gas, and anything approaching today's levels. So the other half of the work that I do and that we do at EDF is really focused on energy transition. How do we accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel dependence?

Jason Bordoff: I'm curious, and I saw Fred Krupp, who runs EDF, arriving here yesterday, what you're doing here. CERAWeek has evolved over time. So it's in full energy conference, a lot of clean energy companies, a lot of power companies, but very strong presence of the oil and gas industry here and not a huge number, tell me if I'm wrong, of environmental groups that are inside the conference. Many, some will be outside protesting. Why is EDF come to a conference like this, and what do you hope to achieve?

Mark Brownstein: To be candid, I started coming to CERAWeek over 20 years ago when I was part of the electric and gas utility business. I was a client. So I understood from those days how incredibly important this gathering is, as really one of the few opportunities where the global energy industry comes together. I always, as a client, learned a great deal when I came to these conferences, and I continue to learn a great deal in my current work as an environmental advocate who's working on energy transition. I think one of the things that has been notable for me in the 20 plus years that I've been coming here is just how much the industry has evolved. I know that to many advocates who are looking at the industry today, looking at the science, and worrying justifiably that we aren't moving quick enough to transition.

I know that for many of those people, it seems like nothing has changed. But I can say with confidence that over 20 years, there's really has been a lot that has changed in terms of the mindset of the industry. For me, coming to CERAWeek is very much checking in with the hive mind of the energy industry to see where it's at. 20 years ago, you could not have had a conversation about climate change, either publicly or privately. It just was not on the agenda, even then the science was clear. It used to be structured that one day was devoted to oil. Do you remember this? There was oil day, and then there was natural gas day, and then you had two days at the end for electricity, and half the people left, and it was just a bunch of utility guys.

By the way, 20 years ago, it was mostly guys. You come to the conference today, and, of course, you see a robust conversation going on about energy transition. It's well understood that climate change is a major factor in the future of the industry. It's a far more diverse conference, both in terms of gender and race and geopolitical representation, and all of the topics are intermingled. You can't talk about oil independent of gas. You can't talk about gas independent of electricity. By the way, electricity is no longer that thing often the corner. It's front and center in every day of the conversation because, of course, one of the critical paths for energy transition is increased electrification of transportation, of home heating, commercial energy use, and the like. Electricity has gone from being the crazy ant in the attic to being front and center as part of the energy transition conversation.

Jason Bordoff: Where do you see that conversation today? As you said, it's evolved a lot, and there is a lot of discussion of the energy transition and climate change. I think some of the themes this year, of different pathways, different trajectories that you can take to get to net zero, it looks different in different parts of the world. We need more of a sense of pragmatism, of realism. We need to think about energy security, not just the energy transition. All of those are important points to discuss and address when you take them all together. For many, it leaves the impression that, "We can't move as fast, maybe as we even are today." It's just too hard. There's a sense of realism to what the world needs in terms of delivering the oil and gas that the world needs, and a sense that some of the companies that had been forward-leaning in this space in recent years have pulled back.

We just saw an announcement from Shell recently about growing gas and maintaining oil production, and for everything you just said, how do you see the broad trends? And it's hard to paint with a broad brush and characterize everyone. So there are differences. I want you to speak to those. Where do you see this conversation going given that there is a reality to meeting today's energy demand, to energy security, to affordability, to the needs of billions of people who use very little energy around the world, and to the fact that we are really running out of time very, very quickly to achieve goals anywhere close to something like one and a half or even two degrees warming?

Mark Brownstein: Look, I started by talking about some of the positives that I've seen in the evolution of the industry's thinking over the last 20 years. So that being said, what you can often see when you get together in industry confabs like this is a sense of mutual reinforcement of preexisting biases. So one of the things that I do worry about when I get together with folks in the industry is just how much they work to convince themselves that their product is indispensable, that the world can't exist without oil and gas. That oil and gas will be with us for decades, if not centuries, to come. That all of the above really means a heavy dose of business as usual, with maybe an icing of new energy technologies on top. There is certainly the danger, if not the reality, at a conference here like CERAWeek, that the industry comes together and convinces itself of the rightness of its being.

I think, frankly, one of the reasons why it's good to have people like me here is to be the reminder that business as usual isn't going to work. That the physics of climate change are unforgiving. That the consequences of climate change are apparent. Every day, you open up the newspaper, you can find a story, and that there's, as much as the industry likes to talk about the cost of new energies and new technologies and what that will do to the pocketbooks of people in the United States or to energy affordability in the developing world, that there's a huge cost to inaction. The failure to get a handle on methane pollution, the failure to fundamentally reduce CO2 emissions imposes huge, huge costs on the American consumer, on the European consumer, on folks in the developing world, and that these costs are not just in dollars and cents. They often are told in number of human lives lost.

So yes, it's expensive to make a transition. There's new capital that needs to be deployed, and we need to do it quickly, and that makes it all the more expensive. But of course, there's a huge expense in just standing pat. The industry itself may not internalize those costs for them. That might look like a savings, but from the perspective of you and I, we're going to pay for this one way or another, and I would submit to you that the price we will pay for the failure to move quickly is going to be far higher than whatever price we pay to move forward in a cleaner, lower carbon direction.

Jason Bordoff: I'm trying to imagine some of the responses if we bring others into the room, which we should, next time to your point, about, I forget how you put it, groupthink or convincing oneself of where the future is headed. Some of that might be, I can imagine people saying, "But look at the world around us." Which is, last year, clean energy spending was twice what it was on fossil fuels. A share of new vehicles sold globally that are electric is something like one in five or one in six. It was 1 in 20 just a few years ago. So clean energy is growing dramatically, oil use is rising, gas use is rising, and coal use is rising. The numbers are so big in this system, and that is why people are having a view which is, "We're going to need oil and gas for a long time, and if we don't produce it, someone else will. If we don't produce it, there'll be geopolitical problems." What do you want the folks who come together at conferences like this to understand might not be right about that view?

Mark Brownstein: So I was just looking at some statistics this morning that our shipping team, based in Europe, just sent to me. They were at the International Maritime Organization last week, had a working group. EDF is one of the few global NGOs that has official observer status there. So I was getting the report out from that meeting and also getting some statistics. More than half of the container ships that are currently on order from Korean, Japanese shipyards are dual fuel that is capable of either running on, distill it from fossil fuels, or methanol or ammonia that could be produced from hydrogen.

So this is where we're at. We have new technologies coming into the marketplace that have the capacity to use cleaner fuels. The question is, when those ships hit the water, what will they actually be burning? Our job, my job as EDF, is to make sure that those ships, when they hit the water day one, are burning the cleaner fuel and that the optionality that those ships present really become part of the transition into building the clean energy infrastructure that we need. Now, the question is, will that happen, or will the fact that the ships are capable of burning distillate mean that people will default to the lowest common denominator, the easier, the cheaper option? That is paradigmatic for me of where we are in this energy transition. Do we simply rely on the deployment of hybrid electric vehicles, or do we lean into building the electric charging stations that make it possible for people to go fully electric in the coming decade?

We're at these kinds of decision points, and some of this is about economics. Some of this is about political will, and candidly, some of this is about ethics. I fundamentally believe that there is no energy company CEO that gets a free pass when it comes to wrestling with the science of climate change. In other words, it isn't just for me, Mark Brownstein, or me, Environmental Defense Fund, to worry about. This is something that you, as an energy company leader, needs to worry about. Because at the end of the day, this is about quality of life on the planet, and the business as usual path does clearly provide benefits to people, but it also imposes huge costs. We're at a point now where those trade-offs are frankly no longer tolerable.

Jason Bordoff: What does that mean for the role of the traditional oil and gas industry in this transition, which is a topic of debate? Some in the environmental movement think that there's not really a role for the industry. It will always be resistant to change. Many companies talk about moving from oil and gas company to energy company and doing a lot of things, including investing, growing amounts in clean energy. I mean, what trends encourage you? What discourages you, and what do you think the right role for an industry with a lot of capital, with a lot of engineering expertise? What do you think it could or should be?

Mark Brownstein: Incumbency always inspires complacency. That's true of the companies that provide the business-as-usual product. Frankly, that's true of the financial community, that grows accustomed to companies that throw off a lot of cash and dividends and afford stock buybacks. So there's a powerful inertia in the system that biases it towards business as usual. In the auto industry, we saw Tesla be a disruptive force in the industry, which really sparked an interest in electric vehicles. That, in combination with the Dieselgate scandal at Volkswagen, which exposed the myth of clean diesel, those two events really jump started a change in the auto industry.

You talked about one in five vehicles being sold today being electric. A lot of that has to do with Tesla and the obvious problems with the solutions that the incumbents were offering up as a bandaid. The oil and gas industry is beginning to see those kinds of disruptive events occurring. You came here five years ago. No one was talking about wind. No one was talking about solar. Today, Daniel Yergin talks about solar as being a disruptive technology. He talks about batteries as being a disruptive technology, and both of those are major factors in how the oil and gas industry is thinking about its future.

Jason Bordoff: But is it not also the case that they're seeing shareholders reward companies that are perceived to not be abandoning the traditional business?

Mark Brownstein: This is where I was going to go next. One of the things that I have learned from my many years of haunting the halls of CERA is, there's no such thing as the oil and gas industry. It really is a variety of subcultures. Most of us are very accustomed of thinking about the oil and gas industry as Exxon, Shell, BP, and Total, the household names, if you will. The truth is, those household names accountable for roughly 25% of global production.

Jason Bordoff: Even last, though, the IEA says the seven super majors are around 15% of world oil and gas supply.

Mark Brownstein: Okay, there you go.

Jason Bordoff: The majority, which I want to ask you about, is nationally owned companies. I want to come to that.

Mark Brownstein: That is where I was going. But the point is that we could wave our magic wand, and I'm sure some of us would want to wave our magic wand and make Exxon disappear. So now you've taken care of 3%. The point is that this is a massive industry, and a lot of it is characterized by national oil companies, who are, as the name implies, creatures of the countries in which they're located. Saudi Aramco is probably the most known of them, but national oil companies represent over half of global oil production. They hold two-thirds of known global oil and gas reserves. This is really the heart of the industry, and the point I want to make here is that energy transition for a national oil company means something very different than energy transition for an IOC.

ExxonMobil goes out of business, and some shareholders may profit from that. Many shareholders may not profit from that, but the world will continue to turn. If Saudi Aramco gets it wrong, if Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, ADNOC, gets it wrong, countries are at stake. So that makes the energy transition, at once, very much an existential challenge for these large oil and gas-producing countries. But it also means that they take the energy transition, I think, a lot more seriously than some of the investor owned companies do because they cannot afford to get this wrong. They can't afford to get this wrong because of the...

Jason Bordoff: Do they take it more seriously, or are they more skeptical, more averse to change? Maybe a company, depending on where it's located, can be as profitable and earn as much rent for their state in clean energy as they can in oil and gas, but many cannot. So the economic, financial health of the state may depend on a slower transition or on those companies being the last producers standing if there is a transition.

Mark Brownstein: Yeah. Actually, what this conversation may be hinting at is, I started by saying, "You can't generalize about the oil and gas industry." You probably can't generalize about national companies. But here's the point that I would make, having now spent a fair amount of time in the UAE and spending a fair amount of time in Qatar, these are countries that literally remade themselves over the last 50 years based on the hydrocarbon wealth that they were able to develop and exploit. If you look at the pictures of what Abu Dhabi looked like in 1970, and then you spend any amount of time in Abu Dhabi today, it is mind-blowing. The same thing for Doha. Okay. So a country and a culture that is capable of taking itself from one fundamental economic and social reality to a second inside of 50 years is actually capable of doing that again.

So I really do believe that when I spend time in the Middle East, that there is a kernel of innovation and certainly an orientation to the sustainability of society that, actually gives me hope that actually, some of these Gulf countries could emerge as leaders in energy transition, because just as 50 years ago, they were not content to be left behind as the world industrialized. That once again, now, how do you take the wealth that you currently have and make sure that the country remains equally as prosperous and equally as secure 50 years from now when it's so obvious that continued production and reliance on fossil fuels is going to be harder and harder to justify?

Jason Bordoff: Yeah.

Mark Brownstein: Don't forget, this is part of the world that is fully on the front line of climate change. If you've spent any amount of time in any of these places in the summertime, it is increasingly unbearable, in part as a consequence of climate change.

Jason Bordoff: I don't dispute any of that. You do see enormous innovation, Masdar, in the UAE. A lot of the technology, Saudi Aramco, for example, is investing in renewables, a lot of resources in that part of the world to make green hydrogen, green ammonia to harness the solar energy that's there, and many other clean technologies too. The question is how to think about the rents, the revenue for the state, and in a world where hydrocarbons can be produced, not always, but often and historically, relatively cheaply, and sold at a globally market price that might be much higher, generating enormous wealth, massive amounts of money.

I think it's reasonable to be skeptical that you can have the same level of revenue even if you're successfully able to transition to being a clean energy company, and how countries should think about that challenge or with other technologies like carbon capture play a role in extending the runway for hydrocarbons. There has to be a role for carbon management, I believe, and the IEA scenarios tell us, but that's sometimes the skepticism people hear about the discussion of those technologies. Is it seen as a way to perpetuate a longer runway?

Mark Brownstein: I think if one of the downsides of a conference like CERAWeek is that you can fall into groupthink. Another is the idea that technological innovation is linear and that you can sit here today and reasonably predict what future energy options are going to look like or, candidly, what future consumer preferences are going to demand. I think if one thing is true, we've seen a series of discontinuous events inside the energy industry. I mean, literally, like I said, five years ago, no one was talking about solar at CERAWeek. Now, it is front and center. The explosive growth in electric vehicles has everything to do with changes in battery chemistry that, 10 years ago, people thought was impossible. Only two years ago at this conference, we were talking about cobalt as being a choke point on the production of electric vehicles. That is so passe in just 24 months.

Jason Bordoff: Because battery technology has removed...

Mark Brownstein: Because battery technology... There's all sorts of innovation out there. So I don't think that anyone in the energy industry can sit back and go that they know with certainty what the next 10 or 20 or 30 years looks like. Frankly, if there's a downside to that, it's that capital sits on the sideline waiting for what the obvious investments are, capital that we otherwise need to begin to deploy the technologies that we need in a relatively short period of time. What makes this hard at the end of the day is not whether we will have the capital or not whether we will have the technology to decarbonize our global economy. What makes this hard is how quickly we need to do it. So if we had 60 or 100 years to evolve into the next, I'm pretty confident that we would get there. The problem is that we really need some massive change in the next 20 or 30 years, and it's precisely at the point where you're not 100% confident about where to put the money. What is the smart bet?

That's where the risk is. Again, bringing it back to the earlier point, I actually think that national oil companies, in some respects, are better positioned to take some of those risks because their investment time horizon is fundamentally longer and the value that they're trying to maximize is something different than what a shareholder-driven company is incented to do. I think it is entirely possible that shareholders will drive most of those IOCs to being nothing more than cash cows, cash machines, and for all the questions that people are putting to Wael Sawan at Shell or Darren Woods at Exxon, what are you going to do about the energy transition? I would equally ask the investors who are sucking all that cash out of Shell and Exxon, "What are you doing with that money? Where is that money going?" If that money were going into investment in clean energy technologies, I might sleep a little better at night. So that's really where I think some of the focus needs to be in the future.

Jason Bordoff: When you talk about those different timelines, if you have 20 or 30 years or you have 60 or 100 or whatever Vaclav Smil says, transitions normally take 60, 70, 80 years, but we don't have that kind of time and how those trajectories look different. One of the areas they're most different is how one might think about a role for natural gas in a transition if it has to move much faster, much less of a role. Even the old sustainable development scenario for the IEA that was 1.8 rather than 1.5. Even there, the trajectory for gas looked quite a bit different. So when you look at what companies are doing, you mentioned Shell a moment ago, which just released their plan with growth in the LNG business, or the huge investments Qatar just announced to grow LNG or the US putting a pause on LNG exports in part to study the climate impacts. How do you think about LNG globally and about the role of gas in the transition?

Mark Brownstein: So first of all, gas is primarily natural gas, as they call it, or fossil gas, as some of my community would like to call it, but whatever you want to call it, it's basically methane. As we started, as we said at the top of conversation, nearly a third of the warming right now on the planet is caused by methane from human activities going into the atmosphere. So as a practical matter, there is no such thing as gas playing any kind of constructive role in the energy present or the energy future unless methane emissions from the industry are fully, and I mean fully, controlled.

Jason Bordoff: We just had your colleague, Steve Hamburg, on a few weeks ago to talk about what you've done to put a satellite in space to measure that, which will be an extraordinary undertaking.

Mark Brownstein: Right. To measure that. Frankly, we want that satellite to be able to tell the story of reductions happening. It's an opportunity for the industry to step up and be accountable, in the best sense of the word. That's what that satellite is all about. We worked quite closely with Dr. Sultan and the leadership in COP28 to develop the oil and gas decarbonization charter. 50 companies have signed up to that. Those companies, among other things, the charter requires close to a 90% reduction in methane emissions by 2030.

Jason Bordoff: Just for people listening, explain what that is, and is it meaningful? Is it important? People are used to a lot of things being agreed upon, announced, and signed to COPs. Is this...

Mark Brownstein: It's a meaningful commitment, but whether it's meaningful in practice will have a lot to do with what the companies show up to COP29 with, what they show up to COP30 with. It really has to do with whether we're going to see actual performance. The good news, of course, is that we don't have to take anyone's word for it now. We will be able to use the methane satellite to assess whether, in fact, folks are taking action. So the final exam is coming.

Jason Bordoff: You mentioned earlier in the conversation, just to stay on methane for a minute, a really important issue, very significant global warming potential near term. But you said, we know relatively easy problem to solve. Why have we been saying that for a long time? Why is the somewhat easy problem to solve been so hard to solve?

Mark Brownstein: For a long time, to be fair, it's only been in the last 10 years, really, since we started talking about it, that both companies and countries were taking methane seriously. I think the first time that methane showed up on the global political agenda, the COP agenda was in Glasgow. What was that three years ago? That was the first time, with the oil and gas compact that John Kerry and others helped develop. That was the first time, that methane, in the 30 plus years of global climate conferences, that there was ever a focus on methane. So in practice, in reality, there's only been a two- or three-year effort now to really focus attention on methane pollution, not just from oil and gas but also agriculture and landfills. These are important too, but it's really been only the last two or three years that the global policy community has been paying attention to this.

The industry has been paying attention to it a little longer. The OGCI started talking about methane back in 2014, 2015, but it's been slow to dawn on people that this pollutant plays this bigger role in driving warming in the near term. I think it has risen to prominence precisely because we now see the effects of climate change bearing down on the planet so profoundly that people now are looking for fast action that can make a meaningful difference in avoiding the worst consequences of warming. So methane has only recently, I think, hit the consciousness the way it should have. Because no one thought it was important, very few people were doing the heavy lifting of going out and monitoring and measuring.

We started our field studies back in 2011 with University of Texas. I think that was the first organized set of field studies on this anywhere in the world. In 2019, after surveying oil fields, pipelines, and even city utility systems, we published a paper in 2019, which showed conclusively that the traditional ways of reporting on methane, which were based on emission factors and engineering estimates, were understating emissions, at least in the US, by 60%.

So this is a problem that has been understudied for a long period of time, and it's taken a while for industry and for policymakers to realize that the problem is much bigger than anyone thought, that the pollutant is much more significant and much more powerful than anyone thought. But the good news is that in all of that field studies that we did, we saw plenty of examples of oil and gas facilities where methane emissions were virtually zero. So we saw, as a practical matter, that you could have infrastructure with minimal leaks, minimal venting, zero flaring. That it was possible to do. So that's why I'm optimistic that now that the industry is focused on it, there can be a lot of progress in a short period of time because there are examples where production is, from a methane standpoint, anyway, pretty clean. That's why I'm optimistic.

Jason Bordoff: I've heard you and EDF increasingly raise concerns about a move to low carbon gaseous fuels like hydrogen, and maybe some of those same concerns may apply.

Mark Brownstein: Here again, so people say, "Okay, so if you're transitioning off of gas and oil, what's next?" Hydrogen, so there's a big... And here at this conference, everyone's talking about hydrogen, and there's no question that hydrogen can and likely will play a role in the energy transition. Electricity, electrons can do a lot to power the global economy. Increasingly, electrons can be used for transportation, for cars and for trucks, for short-haul shipping, maybe even for short-haul aviation. All of that is in the offing. Electricity can do most of the work around the house, your heating, your cooking, drying your clothes. So there's plenty of things that electricity can do.

Where we are today with technology and where we're likely to be with technology implies, though, that we're going to need molecules for some period of time, molecules to power your ships, your ocean-going ships, molecules to power your airplanes, maybe your heavy-duty trucks, some industrial processes. You're going to need molecules to continue to make the chemicals that are the bedrock of modern life. So you need molecules for all of this stuff. Where are you going to get those molecules from if you don't want to get them from hydrocarbons? And that's where hydrogen comes in. So I think hydrogen can play a role in the future for those kinds of uses. But here again, we need to proceed on the basis of sound science. What the science is telling us is that hydrogen, although not a greenhouse gas, has profound impacts on the atmosphere when it is vented or leaked.

Again, it's not a greenhouse gas like CO2 or methane is, but when it goes into the atmosphere, it contributes to the formation of water vapor. It contributes to the development to tropospheric ozone. Both of those are greenhouse gases. Actually, when it goes into the atmosphere, it works to prolong the life of methane in the atmosphere. So it makes the methane problem worse. So for all those reasons, you need to minimize the amount of hydrogen that escapes into the atmosphere or is vented into the atmosphere, as some current process do. The problem is, like with methane 10 years ago, no one knows how much is being lost from today's processes, and we don't have good insights into how to design facilities for zero hydrogen loss. So we've been working with a company called Aerodyne to develop the first-ever technology that's capable of measuring hydrogen emissions at a fine scale. We're in the process now of working to deploy that technology to get some good baseline information, just like we did with methane 12 years ago with those first University of Texas studies. We're now doing that with hydrogen.

Jason Bordoff: But if we're going to grow a clean energy economy and try to get anywhere close to targets like net zero 2050 or 1.5 degrees warming, we don't have 12 years to figure out whether there was a problem with hydrogen leaks before we decide whether we're going to invest huge amounts of capital in a hydrogen economy. And you can go down the list of other clean energy technologies. So I hear you on the need to do science carefully, science that takes time. But the Inflation Reduction Act has a huge $3 per kilogram tax credit for green hydrogen, motivated, I think, in part by a sense that we got to move quickly to scale these technologies. So how do you balance that need for speed with the need for science and understanding?

Mark Brownstein: One way to get at that is to make sure that, again, as I said, I think hydrogen plays a role in the future. The one thing to do to make sure of is that you're putting that hydrogen into places where you are reasonably certain to get a high greenhouse gas benefit. So replacing all of the gray hydrogen or black hydrogen production that's happening today, all the stuff that's coming from coal, would be a good place to start because the carbon footprint of that is so incredibly high that even with hydrogen leakage, you're likely to achieve some kind of real climate benefit, investing into the development of next-generation aviation fuels and next-generation shipping fuels. There's no question that there's going to be climate benefits associated with those uses. The mistake, I think, is to put a lot of capital into blue hydrogen development where the climate impact of that relative to the continued use of fossil fuels is relatively marginal to begin with and where the leakage could make a significant difference in whether you're helping or hurting.

Jason Bordoff: Is it necessarily marginal, or you have to make sure that you're actually capturing the CO2 and doing it right?

Mark Brownstein: You have to make some huge assumptions about how efficiently you can capture CO2. In other words, the oil and gas industry likes to talk about environmentalists as engaging and wishful thinking. The industry often engages in wishful thinking. In order for blue hydrogen to make sense, you have to have very high control efficiencies on CCUS. I'm not saying that it can't be done, but I've yet to see it being done. So one wonders whether that's a little bit of magical thinking on the part of the industry, but even assuming that you got that 100% right and that the methane that you were using was 100% leak-free and the CCUS had carbon capture efficiency north of 90%, then you'd still have the question of what is the impact of those hydrogen leakage on the total climate footprint of your blue hydrogen project.

Jason Bordoff: Oh, your green hydrogen... The leakage question would apply...

Mark Brownstein: In green hydrogen, you've got more headroom to play with because it is a fundamentally lower-carbon enterprise at that point. Where you're putting that hydrogen into has a lot to do with how certain you can be that you're actually having a beneficial carbon footprint. If your business plan is to send that green hydrogen into a home through a gas utility pipeline, that's a poor use of hydrogen. It's very energy inefficient, and with the potential for leakage, it could be that negative relative to continuing to use methane. So why focus your hydrogen use case there when there are some clear benefits to be had in cleaning up the existing hydrogen feedstock that comes from coal or devoting it towards the hard-to-abate shipping and aviation sectors where you really do need some innovation in fuels in order to keep those important economic actors viable?

Jason Bordoff: Just to bring it to a close, talk about what you want to see more discussion about. As you said, 2011, I remember the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board task force looking at natural gas at shale gas that Fred elevated the issue of methane, and EDF was early to that. What's coming around the corner that you want to see leaders at conferences like this in the industry paying more attention to?

Mark Brownstein: That's a good example right there. In 2011, everyone thought that natural gas was going to be the salvation. Because of the work that we did on methane, it really caused people to rethink that rush to gas. What we learned from that experience is that getting the science early on, being clear-eyed about the carbon footprint of alternatives and the environmental attributes of alternatives is incredibly important to achieving energy transition in a way that really is effective from a decarbonization standpoint and is also sustainable from an environmental and societal standpoint. So my mantra always is, go fast, but go smart. Let's not assume a way some of the key challenges associated with advanced biofuels, advanced hydrogen, or any of these alternatives that people are looking at, but let's lean into those challenges now early in the process, while we still have time to make investments that are smarter than to just wave your hands over the details on the theory that we'll just deploy a lot of stuff and somehow it all works out. That's a recipe for wasting a lot of time and a lot of capital.

Jason Bordoff: Mark Brownstein. It's a super busy week here. But thanks for making some time to be with us today. Talk about the work EDF is doing. I think you know how much respect I have for the organization, for you, for Fred, for the whole team, and bringing that level of rigor, pragmatism, and science to try to see where we can make real progress. So thanks for the work you're doing, and thanks for being with us today.

Mark Brownstein: Jason, thanks for the time.

Jason Bordoff: Thank you, Mark Brownstein, and thank you for listening to this week's episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by me, Jason Bordoff, and by Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Erin Hardick from Latitude Studios. Additional support from Caroline Pitman, Lilly Lee, Jocelyn Tarbox, and Kyu Lee. Roy Campanella engineered the show. For more information about the podcast or the Center on Global Energy Policy, please visit us online at or follow us on social media at @ColumbiaUEnergy. Please, if you feel inclined, give us a rating on Apple Podcasts. It really helps us out. Thanks again for listening. We'll see you next week.

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