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To rein in climate change, Biden pledges $7 billion to regional 'hydrogen hubs'

President Joe Biden speaks about his Bidenomics agenda at Tioga Marine Terminal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 13, 2023.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
President Joe Biden speaks about his Bidenomics agenda at Tioga Marine Terminal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 13, 2023.

Seven regions across the U.S., from Pennsylvania to California, will share $7 billion to build the country's first regional hubs to develop hydrogen as an alternative fuel to oil and gas. President Joe Biden announced the projects Friday during a stop at the Tioga Marine Terminal in the Port of Philadelphia.

Biden touted hydrogen as a way to create thousands of new jobs and cut carbon dioxide pollution that contributes to climate change. "Those hubs are about people coming together across state lines, across industries, across political parties to build a stronger, more sustainable economy and to rebuild our communities," Biden said.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called Friday's announcement the "dawn of a new manufacturing sector in the United States."

Hydrogen, an odorless and highly combustible molecule, is largely produced from natural gas, but it can also be made from water by using electricity. That could mean no carbon emissions. The administration claims the majority of projects would fast track commercial-scale "clean hydrogen" production.

Where hydrogen hubs will go

The Department of Energy selected the seven hubs, which involve 17 states, in a competitive process that began with 79 applications. Hubs include California, the Gulf Coast of Texas, the Ohio River Valley, a Midwest hub encompassing Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, as well as a region that includes North and South Dakota, and Minnesota. The funding comes from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey make up the Mid-Atlantic Clean Hydrogen hub, or MACH2, and would get $750 million to help utilize the region's legacy fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines, oil refineries and port facilities.

One hub project includes Philadelphia Gas Works, the nation's largest municipal owned utility, producing hydrogen to power trucks at the Port of Philadelphia. MACH2 also promises to create 20,000 jobs.

An Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub, or ARCH2, also was selected and would have projects in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky. ARCH2 is led by the state of West Virginia, Pittsburgh-based natural gas company EQT, and several other companies and institutions. West Virginia senators Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito backed the project.

ARCH2 will be eligible for up to $925 million in federal funding and create up to 18,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs if it is fully built out, administration officials said.

Washington, Oregon and Montana will get up to $1 billion to create a hydrogen hub in the Pacific Northwest. The goal is to produce hydrogen fuel by splitting the element from water using abundant renewable power in the area. The process, called electrolysis, can produce the greenest form of hydrogen, with only oxygen as a byproduct.

Supporters say the hub will create more than 10,000 jobs and remove the equivalent of 220,000 gas-powered cars every year from the roads.

California will receive more than $1 billion to develop and deploy clean renewable hydrogen. One goal is to power sites like the state's busy ports with carbon free power. Officials estimate that will cut two million metric tons of carbon emissions.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said the hydrogen projects will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. "It's about manufacturing, it's about jobs, clean manufacturing, clean energy jobs," he said. "And I just couldn't be more enthusiastic."

Newsom also said the project's benefits will flow to disadvantaged communities, but California environmental justice groups are pushing back saying they've been shut out of the process.

Not every proposal came away with federal funding, including the Northeast Hydrogen Hub, for example. This $3.62 billion proposal from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont would have built out more than a dozen projects in the region to help produce hydrogen.

States in the region expressed disappointment, but said they're not giving up on hydrogen.

Why focus on hydrogen

The Biden administration's push for hydrogen comes as part of a national goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — meaning the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere is balanced by removing carbon emissions over a period of time. To achieve this balance requires replacing coal and oil with cleaner fuels.

Hydrogen emits only water when burned as fuel, or in a fuel cell for vehicles. But the production of hydrogen requires a lot of energy. Where that power comes from defines how "clean" it is.

For example, hydrogen produced from natural gas is called "gray hydrogen." Renewable energy like wind and solar are used to produce "green hydrogen."

The White House says about two-thirds of the $7 billion investment will go toward developing green hydrogen by using solar and wind energy to produce it.

The President and his top officials have been traveling the country to promote their work on climate, infrastructure and manufacturing as the 2024 presidential election draws closer. But polls show that voters aren't giving the president much credit for these investments.

Some of Biden's supporters, including climate activists, are pushing back against the hubs since natural gas is currently the primary fuel used to produce hydrogen.

"Throwing billions at hydrogen hubs deepens our dependence on fossil fuels and worsens the climate emergency," said Maggie Coulter, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute.

Critics of the plan also allege that there has been a lack of information surrounding the chosen hubs.

"As the H2Hubs program moves forward, the administration must correct for the persistent lack of transparency that has clouded the program to date, severely hindering public engagement and undermining project accountability," said Julie McNamara, deputy policy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "This must change."

The White House said the impact of the regional hydrogen hubs includes eliminating 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which equates to more than 5.5 million gas powered cars each year. It also says the combined public and private investments will reach $50 billion.

WBUR's Miriam Wasser, KNKX reporter Bellamy Pailthorp, The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier, and KQED's Kevin Stark contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 WHYY

Susan Phillips