Otten questions panelists in ERE hearing on hydrogen hubs
On November 13, the House Environmental Resources & Energy Committee hosted a public hearing on hydrogen hubs, the role they have the potential to play in meeting the commonwealth’s climate goals, and their impacts on surrounding communities.
I have been closely following the issues around hydrogen development, and as co-chair of the PA Legislative Climate Caucus, I have hosted numerous briefings over the past year on hydrogen's potential as well as its climate impacts and safety concerns.
This past summer, I attended the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators National Forum in Indianapolis, in my role as Pennsylvania’s NCEL State Lead, where I had the opportunity to hear about the work that states like Colorado and Illinois have done to ensure that they are prepared for hydrogen infrastructure from a regulatory and policy standpoint.
During the ERE hearing, I was grateful for the opportunity to question panelists about several aspects of hydrogen hub development.
Climate impacts and safety concerns
Our first panelist was one of the legislative leaders on this issue, Illinois state Senator David Koehler. I asked him about the effects hydrogen hubs will have on methane emissions in the commonwealth and how Illinois has prioritized public safety as they prepare for the buildout of this infrastructure.
Transparency and community engagement
We also heard from panelist Rachel Fakhry of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who offered recommendations to help us maximize the economic, community, and climate benefits of hydrogen development while minimizing any harmful consequences. She talked about the importance of community engagement and public involvement throughout the hydrogen hub development and siting process. She referred to the hubs as “pilot programs,” noting that we still have insufficient data on their true impacts.
I asked Ms. Fakhry about the frameworks for ensuring that impacted communities and landowners are included in hydrogen hub development plans. As a legislator whose own neighbors and constituents have been directly impacted by pipelines carrying highly volatile fracking byproducts through our community, I understand firsthand what it feels like to be told one thing and see something else come to fruition. Whether it be promises of transparency, jobs, community involvement, or proper public safety planning and risk mitigation, we cannot allow the same mistakes or lack of accountability as Pennsylvania builds out two hydrogen hubs.
Earlier this year, in a U.S. Department of Energy webinar for hydrogen hub applicants like ARCH2 and MACH2, the DOE urged the applicants to pay particular attention to their proposals’ community benefit statements and to include affected local stakeholders at every step of the process. David Crane, director of the DOE’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED), went as far as to say, “The last thing we want to see at the DOE is a billion dollars of our precious hydrogen hub capital not deployed because an otherwise worthy project ran into entrenched opposition from local communities, which had been disregarded during this process.”
Right now is the time to ensure that communities and property owners are included as partners, not experiments, in these pilot programs. With two hydrogen hubs awarded in our state, Pennsylvania is uniquely positioned to shape the regulatory landscape. If we do it right—by prioritizing community engagement and implementing the necessary safety guardrails, labor standards, and regulatory framework—we have the opportunity to ensure that we're both realizing true climate and community benefits and positioning Pennsylvania for a successful transition to a clean-energy future.
Understanding hydrogen’s potential, and its limitations
Hydrogen has the potential to be an important part of our clean-energy transition if it's used to power hard-to-decarbonize sectors like steel and cement manufacturing, chemical production, long-haul transportation, and aviation. These are applications that are currently responsible for massive amounts of carbon emissions, with energy needs that cannot easily be met with direct electrification from renewables like solar or wind.
But we've now heard "residential uses for hydrogen" suggested both in a briefing to the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry and again this week before the House ERE committee. This raised a red flag for me because while hydrogen *could* be used to power homes and commercial buildings, it is far from the most efficient means of generating electricity for these applications. To reduce the carbon footprint of a home or an office building, it's cleaner and more cost-effective to use direct electrification (solar- or wind-generated electricity) or even energy efficient appliances and heating and heating and cooling systems.
One of the responsible pillars of hydrogen development adopted in Colorado--which I'm encouraging Pennsylvania to adopt--requires that hydrogen *adds* clean energy to the grid, rather than shuffle power around the grid without actually decreasing climate pollution. Using hydrogen for residential applications would fail this test.
So for me, when I hear these blanket references to hydrogen as a one-size-fits-all solution for "clean energy," I hear attempts at greenwashing, when instead what we need is a clear, forward-thinking regulatory framework that prepares our commonwealth for a clean-energy future.
Labor standards and workforce transitions
Transitions are a part of every industry. When I was just starting out in my career, I worked in the newspaper industry, at the same newspaper where my dad worked down on the presses, and we were just beginning to transition from a paper-only model to a more accessible digital model. With any transition, in any industry, challenges arise, and markets, technology, and consumer preferences change. This is exactly what we are seeing with the evolving energy sector.
Pennsylvania has a history of boom and bust when it comes to industry and energy transitions. With the expansion of hydrogen production in Pennsylvania, new jobs with skilled workers will be required to operate these hubs, and we must ensure that a transitioning workforce remains stable by ensuring that every newly approved project includes robust labor standards that guarantee livelihoods and allow communities to thrive and grow in the transition.
Additionally, it is critical these jobs are not outsourced, like many of those in the natural gas industry are, to make certain that Pennsylvania workers and Pennsylvania's economy are the ones seeing the benefits from this industry.
In our hearing, I was pleased to hear panelist Michael Butler of the Consumer Energy Alliance say that Pennsylvania was chosen for two of these hydrogen hub projects because of our skilled workforce and existing infrastructure. But to ensure that we do right by this specialized workforce that has been cultivated here in Pennsylvania, proper labor standards must be a central part of the discussion. I look forward to working with industry leaders to get these protections in place and hold them accountable on their promise to bring jobs to Pennsylvania workers.
In October, just ahead of President Biden's hydrogen hub announcement, I issued a statement calling on my colleagues in the legislature to work with Governor Shapiro's administration to establish guardrails and policies that center our residents, protect our communities, and position Pennsylvania to be a true leader in clean-energy production and clean-energy jobs.
With Pennsylvania now set to host two hydrogen hubs, I will continue to ask questions and do all I can to ensure that transparency, public safety, and community and environmental impacts are at the forefront of our energy policy discussions and decisions.