A human rights group that claims to have successfully lobbied the EU to drop financing for natural gas pipelines has published a withering indictment of the bloc’s regulatory approach to blue hydrogen, warning that it would leave Europe as dependent on energy imports in 2030 as it was in 2021.

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Global Witness said that the European Parliament’s proposal to include natural gas-derived blue hydrogen in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) and Gas Package would divert resources from renewables, including green hydrogen.

However oil industry-backed lobby group Hydrogen4EU, which is advocating for 28 million tonnes of blue hydrogen production across the EU, UK and Norway by 2030, tells Recharge that the Global Witness report is “misleading”.

Regulatory danger

An overhaul of RED II tabled by the European Commission would see member states’ renewable energy targets increased to 40% of primary energy by 2030 and include targets to decarbonise 50% of hydrogen production for use as a chemical feedstock, and a 2.6% H2 target for the transport sector.

Under proposals currently being pushed by Markus Pieper, the European Parliament’s rapporteur — ie, designated author of policy proposals — on renewable energy, member states would be permitted to use blue hydrogen to meet these targets, rolling back earlier stipulations that only green hydrogen would count. Similar concessions would apply in the Gas Package, allowing blue hydrogen the same privileged access to energy infrastructure as green hydrogen.

This, the Global Witness briefing warned, would incentivise a “substantial expansion” of blue hydrogen across the continent and leave Europe with a natural gas shortfall of 303 billion cubic metres by 2030. This would have to be met by imports, which risks sabotaging the EU’s pledge to end the purchase of Russian gas by the end of the decade, it added.

The report, entitled Supporting Fossil Hydrogen Would Keep the EU Hooked on Gas Imports & Wreck the European Green Deal, claims that the shortfall would be higher than European gas imports in 2021, which it pegged at 274 billion cubic metres.

However, EU data shows that the bloc imported 337.5 billion cubic meters in 2021, throwing the organisation’s claim into some doubt.

Hydrogen4EU — which counts Shell, BP, Exxon and Total among its members — also questioned the Global Witness calculations, telling Recharge that the non-governmental organisation had overestimated the amount of gas required to make 28 million tonnes of blue hydrogen by around 18%.

Its Charting Pathways To Enable Net Zero report, published just over a year ago, predicts that the share of natural gas in the energy mix would remain stable, and a spokesman noted that gas import dependency is expected to rise even if blue hydrogen does not achieve the production outlined in the group’s scenarios.

However, the report does not take into account of the Ukraine crisis, Hydrogen4EU admits, adding optimistically that the supply squeeze could result in a revival of European domestic gas production.

Ukraine effect

In fact, a scarcity of fossil gas in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as long-term pressures on natural gas production related to the energy transition and the Covid-19 pandemic, may well put the brakes on blue hydrogen development regardless of EU regulation.

“One... has to ask how much blue hydrogen is going to be produced in Europe now that it is getting rid of one third of its current natural gas supply and is short of natural gas for current needs, let alone creating blue hydrogen,” Alex Barnes, an independent energy consultant tells Recharge.

“The only possible exception to this would be switching current grey hydrogen production to blue hydrogen use as both would be using natural gas.”

Global Witness calls upon the EU to focus solely on green hydrogen, saying: “If carefully targeted towards the right sectors, policy support for renewable hydrogen, which is made from renewable electricity and virtually carbon-free, would bring substantial carbon benefits.

“Fossil hydrogen is made from fossil gas, which releases unacceptably high climate heating emissions during its production, even if ‘carbon capture’ equipment is used to curb some of these emissions.”

The organisation, which has sought to expose undue influence of fossil-fuel lobbying in Brussels with a series of exposés on natural gas, has already claimed credit for the bloc’s decision to drop support for natural gas infrastructure in its Trans-European Networks for Energy (TEN-E) in 2020, on the back of its participation in the expert review.

The European Commission would not be drawn on whether the NGO would be invited back to advise on RED II or the Gas Package, telling Recharge it “always consults stakeholders before legislation”.