Plans by Canadian gas utilities to blend hydrogen into their natural gas supplies to purportedly reduce their climate impact will in fact generate more than double the amount of harmful emissions than using natural gas alone, researchers have found.

Several Canadian gas utilities — including B.C.'s FortisBC and Enbridge in Ontario — plan to blend small amounts of hydrogen gas to make their natural gas emit less carbon dioxide. Because hydrogen does not emit the greenhouse gas when it burns, the companies say their plan will reduce the amount of carbon emitted by gas-powered household appliances.

Fossil fuel companies say their hydrogen gas will be produced without the use of fossil fuels. However, there currently is not nearly enough sustainable hydrogen production capacity to meet demand.

And now, a team of British researchers has found adding hydrogen to natural gas actually increases how much natural gas leaks from stove burners and boilers because the smaller hydrogen molecules help the larger methane ones escape. They did not assess leakage from pipes, only household appliances.

Because natural gas is made from methane — a potent greenhouse gas — the increased number of leaks outweighs any climate benefits arising from blending hydrogen into the fuel. Plus, the leaks occur even when appliances are not in use.

Leaks from gas pipes of methane, benzene and other gases and the airborne residue left after the fuel is burned in appliances also pose a significant health risk. American researchers have found that about 12 per cent of children exposed to natural gas and gas fumes will develop asthma, a similar rate as children exposed to secondhand smoke.

Gas companies' plan to blend hydrogen and natural gas "is greenwashing natural gas to make it seem like it's greener than it is," said Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

To reach their conclusion, the researchers pressurized a conventional gas hob (a modified version of the old gas stove) and a gas boiler with pure methane (natural gas) and a series of blends of hydrogen and natural gas similar to those fossil fuel companies have proposed to run through their pipes. The team then assessed how much pressure was lost from the theoretically closed system to measure how much fuel leaked.

They found that, on average, when methane gas is blended with 20 per cent hydrogen for cooking hobs, leaks double. Boilers using the same hydrogen-to-methane blend leaked nearly 44 per cent more than when they only used gas.

Researchers have found that plans by gas companies to blend natural gas and hydrogen in an effort to reduce their emissions will likely backfire by creating more gas leaks.

"Industry has made hydrogen a solution in search of a problem, but as this research illustrates, the physical properties of hydrogen are what they are. It's leaky and it makes pipelines crack prematurely, neither of which are good qualities for a fuel source running through our neighbourhoods," said Paul Martin, co-founder of the Hydrogen Science Coalition.

The findings come weeks after FortisBC, Enbridge and the B.C. government announced plans to study how to mix hydrogen into natural gas and transport it along existing gas pipelines. Both companies have made hydrogen a key part of their proposed plans to reduce emissions. FortisBC has pledged that at least 15 per cent of the fuel in its pipes will be either hydrogen or so-called "renewable natural gas" made from organic waste.

"FortisBC believes that hydrogen has the potential to play a significant role in a lower-carbon energy future and can help meet the goals of the province’s CleanBC strategy," FortisBC spokesperson Diana Sorace said in a statement to Canada's National Observer. "We are currently working with government, academia and industry to understand how to blend hydrogen, safely and reliably, with natural gas within FortisBC’s existing system."

Enbridge spokesperson Natasha Carr wrote to Canada's National Observer that “Enbridge Gas has not had the opportunity to review the report yet, so it would be premature to respond at this time."

The companies' push for hydrogen is a desperate effort to stay in business in the face of electric alternatives like heat pumps and electric stoves — and regulations meant to promote them. Electric heaters and boilers are more efficient than gas ones, do not generate air pollution or greenhouse gases (if the electricity is sustainably generated), and are often more affordable, said Lem and Martin.

Gas companies and the fossil fuel lobby have for years been fighting against municipal and provincial efforts to ban or severely restrict gas use. That push has included aggressive lobbying and secretive ad campaigns meant to promote and spread misleading information about the fuel.

"The push towards justification for hooking up new homes and new buildings to gas by saying we're going to add environmentally friendly hydrogen is a big greenwashing exercise," said Lem.

"The majority of the gas in the pipe is still going to be fracked gas from northern B.C. that has huge environmental and climate consequences — and it's going to cause more indoor air pollution for families."

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
May 6, 2024, 08:30 am

Editor's note: This story was updated on May 6, 2024 with a more accurate link to the Ecostandards report and to clarify the research teams examined household appliances for leaks, not pipelines.

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“And now, a team of British researchers has found adding hydrogen to natural gas actually increases how much natural gas leaks from stove burners and boilers because the smaller hydrogen molecules help the larger methane ones escape.”

I did not find this conclusion in the report referred to. It is surely nonsense.

Yes, hydrogen probably leaks more readily than methane, and any analysis of the data should consider what was actually leaking. This was not done. The conclusions reached by the reporter are not valid.

Agreed that I can't find the stated conclusion in the report either.

On page 25: "It has also been highlighted that G20.2 has a larger leakage rate than G20 which is most likely
due to the 20% Hydrogen found in G20.2 as Hydrogen is a smaller molecule so will be more
susceptible to leakage." Nothing explicit about it helping methane to escape.

Marc - please explain how you drew the conclusion you made or modify the claim.

Hydrogen leakage is still a big concern, causing reactions in the atmosphere that make it 11 x worse than CO2 for warming over a 100 year period.

Fossil fuel companies' greenwashing plans turn out to be greenwashing. Why, I'm so shocked! You could knock me over with a feather, I'm that surprised.

What about the lower calorific value of the hydrogen? Gas is metered by volume, so won't customers be paying more to Fortis and Enbridge for a methane/hydrogen blend to get the same heat production as from straight methane?