Biden’s $7B ‘clean’ hydrogen dream faces pipeline hurdle

By Christian Robles | 05/21/2024 06:58 AM EDT

The administration is aiming to build the industry from scratch, but it’s unclear how large amounts of fuel will be transported.

Hydrogen renewable energy production pipeline


President Joe Biden’s plan to build a “clean” hydrogen industry is raising concerns about a lack of regulations for transporting the fuel, a gap that could hinder the administration’s efforts to cut emissions.

To deliver millions of metric tons of hydrogen from production facilities to buyers, the industry will need trucks, existing natural gas infrastructure and new pipelines.

But trucks likely won’t be able to move enough hydrogen at scale to satisfy expected demand. The possibility of hydrogen mixed with gas in existing pipelines is spurring fears of potential leaks, explosions and nitrous oxide emissions.


Meanwhile, no federal agency has authority to issue permits for interstate clean hydrogen pipelines. Many states also don’t have rules outlining who can issue permits for moving hydrogen within their borders.

“We see a great degree of urgency to start … infrastructure planning efforts,” said Oleksiy Tatarenko, a senior principal at the research firm Rocky Mountain Institute, in an email.

Clean hydrogen envisions making fuel out of low-carbon power like renewables or natural gas tied to carbon capture. The Biden administration is aiming to build out the U.S. clean hydrogen industry by funding seven hubs across the country with $7 billion from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

According to a Department of Energy road map published in June, hydrogen infrastructure such as pipelines requires “a rapid scale-up, with investment requirements growing from $2 billion to $3 billion annually from 2023 to 2030.” By 2050, the infrastructure needs will balloon to $15 billion to $20 billion annually, DOE said.

But to increase clean hydrogen production to levels envisioned by the administration, experts say there needs to be a more comprehensive assessment of how to move fuel around. It’s currently unclear how many miles of new pipelines are necessary and where they would be located, as details about hydrogen production plants and potential buyers of fuel are still emerging.

“I think that’s the central question — we need to figure out where we’re going to end up using hydrogen because that’ll have a huge impact on to what degree we want to rely on building pipes,” said Dan Esposito, a senior hydrogen policy analyst for climate research firm Energy Innovation.

The Biden administration is targeting production of 10 million metric tons of clean hydrogen annually by 2030. Currently, domestic production of low-carbon fuel is near zero.

In the meantime, universities and think tanks are trying to flesh out what an expanded hydrogen pipeline network might look like — but there are no complete answers for how to efficiently transport large amounts of low-carbon fuel.

Among those looking at the issue is Princeton University, where researchers mapped out hundreds of miles of potential new hydrogen pipelines that connect production facilities to buyers in six regions of the U.S.

Another initiative, the “North American Hydrogen Backbone” spearheaded by RMI and the consulting firm Guidehouse, brings together private companies, utilities, regulators and others to envision hydrogen infrastructure.

The collaboration formed this year is modeled after the European Hydrogen Backbone, a plan developed by energy companies for the buildout of more than 17,000 miles of hydrogen pipelines by 2030.

Under that framework, roughly 60 percent of new European hydrogen pipelines would come from repurposed natural gas pipelines, while the rest would come from ones designed specifically for hydrogen.

However, plans to retrofit existing U.S. gas pipelines for blends with hydrogen “pose a lot of safety problems that we have deep concerns about,” said Bill Caram, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. Caram cited potential gas leaks, explosions and other problems.

Because hydrogen molecules are small, they can corrode the steel in gas pipelines through a process called embrittlement. The problem could lead to hydrogen and planet-warming methane leaking out of gas pipelines, according to a 2022 report from climate research firm Energy Innovation. In extreme cases, embrittled pipelines can explode.

Esposito said natural gas mixed with a high concentration of hydrogen can cause explosions inside homes as well. Hydrogen blends used for home appliances produce a significant amount of nitrous oxide, which has been linked to diseases like asthma, he added.

“Appliances like stoves and water heaters and gas furnaces, they were not designed for hydrogen, and hydrogen is a much different molecule than natural gas,” said Esposito.

‘More efficient ways to move energy’

Many companies say the concerns about hydrogen blends are overblown. Their view is backed by a 2022 California Public Utilities Commission study finding that pipelines with blends of natural gas and 5 percent hydrogen are generally safe.

Higher hydrogen concentrations increase the risk of pipeline embrittlement, the study found.

As of April 2023, gas utilities have announced at least 22 blending projects, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights, an energy and commodities analysis firm. Those projects generally foresee using hydrogen blends for home heating and gas-fired power plants.

For example, North American pipeline company Enbridge said in an email it is researching hydrogen blending and modifications to gas pipelines that would eliminate safety concerns.

Caitlin Tessin, the company’s vice president for Gas Transmission Strategy & Market Innovations, pointed to Enbridge’s pipeline safety research efforts in Canada and participation in DOE’s HyBlend study, which involves companies looking to overcome technical issues with sending hydrogen blends through gas pipelines.

“We are continually looking to innovate our existing infrastructure to reduce emissions and find more efficient ways to move energy,” Tessin said. “Enbridge has been working with peers, world class consultants, and equipment manufacturers to study the impact — and the potential — of H2 blending.”

Other companies are looking to a process called “de-blending,” where hydrogen is extracted from pipeline blends, rather than being used as an end fuel within a gas mix. The process could allow companies to extract pure hydrogen from existing gas pipelines without the need for new infrastructure.

Linde, a leading hydrogen producer, opened in 2022 what it says is the world’s first full-scale pilot plant extracting hydrogen from blends in Germany.

The company says its membrane technology can remove and purify fuel from blends containing anywhere from 5 percent to 60 percent hydrogen. The resulting hydrogen can reach a purity of more than 99 percent according to the company.

The plant “shows a way to leverage existing infrastructure. In doing so we avoid the high costs and the long process that would be involved in building a dedicated hydrogen pipeline infrastructure,” said John van der Velden, senior vice president of global sales & technology for Linde in a January 2022 press release.

But de-blending has not yet emerged as a key hydrogen delivery strategy in the U.S. because of high costs. Extracting fuel from a blend with less than 20 percent hydrogen is unlikely to be economical, according to a 2020 study by British utility National Grid. 

“This hydrogen delivery strategy … incurs additional costs, associated with blending and extraction, as well as modifications to existing pipeline integrity management systems,” according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory white paper.

Still, Enbridge and other companies say upgrading steel natural gas pipelines with new materials could make them suitable to transport either pure hydrogen or hydrogen mixed with gas.

Liang Yu, a senior technology manager for Baker Hughes, said in an email that the company’s reinforced thermoplastic pipes can carry both pure hydrogen and hydrogen-gas blends if certain diameter and pressure rating requirements are met.

“Baker Hughes flexible pipelines can provide significant total cost and installation time savings, allowing customers to cost-effectively retrofit existing lines or new dedicated pipelines,” said Yu.

To date, the company’s technology has been used for oil and gas pipelines but not hydrogen, Yu noted.

There is precedence for building U.S. hydrogen pipelines, although not for the clean fuel eyed by the Biden administration. There are currently about 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipelines carrying fuel made with gas that are generally concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico and owned by private companies, according to DOE.

There are announced plans for an additional 1,650 miles of hydrogen pipelines, according to Marina Domingues, vice president of hydrogen at Rystad Energy. Some of those plans, such as one from SoCalGas in Los Angeles, envision carrying exclusively clean hydrogen.

In comparison, there are roughly 3 million miles of gas pipelines in the U.S., Esposito said. He said he didn’t believe the U.S. hydrogen industry would require a network of that size.

A regulatory hole?

Currently, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees safety regulations for hydrogen pipelines, including future ones that might carry clean fuel. PHMSA, which is part of the Department of Transportation, also funds safety research and development projects for hydrogen, including one investigating “required modifications” to transform existing pipelines.

The Surface Transportation Board, an independent agency that primarily handles railroads, likely doesn’t have jurisdiction over an energy pipeline like hydrogen, though the issue of hydrogen hasn’t been specifically addressed. If the agency did have jurisdiction, it could potentially regulate rates and charges for interstate hydrogen pipelines.

Without a federal agency to permit or site interstate hydrogen pipelines, companies must obtain permits within each state for projects.

Texas, North Dakota, and South Dakota passed laws in the past year clarifying which agencies have regulatory authority over hydrogen pipelines, but most states don’t have laws on the books.

There’s been a push for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to have permitting and rate-setting power over interstate pipelines carrying hydrogen under the Natural Gas Act.

The National Petroleum Council, a federal advisory committee, recently recommended that Congress give FERC the ability to regulate interstate hydrogen pipelines in a report requested by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also has pushing for the issue, introducing the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022 to grant FERC those powers. The bill’s hydrogen provisions did not end up in the final version of a 2022 continuing resolution, however.

If Congress gave FERC new regulatory power, hydrogen pipeline developers would get federal eminent domain rights to get land for their projects. FERC would also have the ability to set quality standards, which would set the concentration of hydrogen gas traveling through interstate pipelines around the country.

However, critics of the idea say giving FERC jurisdiction could hamper the development of the industry by saddling projects with regulations that raise costs and push back timetables for projects.

Former FERC Commissioner James Danly said at a June 2023 congressional hearing that Congress should be cautious about giving the agency such regulatory power.

“I would generally advise you not advise nascent industries, especially those that you actually wish to promote, to the full panoply of federal regulation immediately,” Danly said. He added FERC regulations can be “onerous” for hydrogen companies.

DOE, Congress and companies

As the debate over permitting rages, some of DOE’s hydrogen hubs are moving forward with plans for pipelines.

Dorothy Davidson, CEO of the Midwest MachH2 hub, said in an interview that the project is floating plans to connect hydrogen production facilities to glass manufacturing. The Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub also is eyeing building hydrogen pipelines to complement trucks. The Appalachian Regional Hydrogen Hub said in an email it is assessing the extent existing natural gas infrastructure can be used to deliver hydrogen.

Those efforts come as bills circulate in Congress to boost funding for hydrogen infrastructure. In February, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) introduced a measure to create a pilot program offering grants and loans to help build the emerging industry.

Last August, DOE also launched an infrastructure, siting, and permitting working group with multiple federal agencies as part of its Hydrogen Interagency Task Force, a collaboration to support production of the fuel. In December, DOE announced it would allocate part of a $59 million grant to hydrogen projects that identify and propose solutions to permitting and siting challenges.

“We’re really looking holistically as to where could there be large demand and then focus some of the infrastructure there,” said Sunita Satyapal, director of DOE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, in an interview.

Outside of DOE’s hydrogen hubs, the SoCalGas’ project — which is known as Angeles Link — plans to transport hydrogen exclusively made from renewable energy. It foresees pipelines around the San Joaquin Valley near future hydrogen production facilities, said Neil Navin, senior vice president of Engineering & Major Projects and chief clean fuels officer for SoCalGas.

“What you see is a strong need for hydrogen,” said Navin. “We see Angeles Link as an extension of that need.”

Angeles Link is currently in phase one, which means the developers are analyzing infrastructure engineering issues, making regulatory and environmental considerations and engaging with the nearby community. Navin said he expects SoCalGas to finish phase one this summer or early fall.

Angeles Link expects to be located exclusively within California’s borders. That allows the company to avoid dealing with the challenges facing interstate hydrogen pipelines.

SoCalGas ultimately expects to have some miles of pipeline finished as soon as the late 2020s, depending on how demand for hydrogen develops. Navin noted that the ARCHES hydrogen hub in negotiations with DOE could soon add to the need for pipelines in California.

“We need production to begin and we need off-takers,” Navin said.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the Surface Transportation Board’s role in regulating hydrogen.