After the Biden administration announced seven regional Hydrogen Hubs to advance in award negotiations, ecology activists said the scheme again falls short of eliminating fossil fuels and once again fails to reflect the urgency necessary in response to the climate emergency.
The Energy Department’s plan includes three hubs in primary steelmaking regions: Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) serving Ohio and Pennsylvania, HyVelocity H2Hub in Texas, and the Midwest Alliance for Clean Hydrogen (MachH2) serving Michigan and Indiana steelmaking.
Some Hubs were supported by steelmakers including Cleveland-Cliffs and US Steel. Hydrogen Hubs will establish networks of hydrogen producers, consumers, and local infrastructure to deliver and store hydrogen.
Hydrogen is a key ingredient in the most commercially advanced pathway to cleaning up primary steelmaking. Primary steelmaking is the process of making new steel from iron ore. Green hydrogen, produced through electrolysis powered by new renewable energy resources, can be used to make iron in a direct reduced iron (DRI) furnace.
When combined with an electric arc furnace (EAF) powered by renewable energy, steel production can reach near zero emissions.
In response to the Department of Energy (DOE)’s announcement, climate activists and residents from steel-producing states are voicing concerns about the proposed Hydrogen Hubs that may serve steelmaking.
All proposed Hubs in steelmaking regions currently include blue hydrogen made using methane gas and carbon capture.
“The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) analyzed hydrogen use in-depth, revealing that when targeted at the hard-to-electrify end-uses like steelmaking, marine shipping and aviation, the gas has the strongest potential to support America’s transition to a clean economy,” said New Jersey environmentalist Lisa McCormick. “However, a free-for-all scenario—where hydrogen is widely deployed in inefficient sectors like buildings, power plants, or short-range vehicles—may increase the costs, hinder our effort to transition to a clean economy, and prevent America from achieving net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050.”
“The steel industry is a major source of toxic pollution that currently accounts for nine percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” said McCormick. “Steel is still predominantly made using old blast furnaces that run on coal, which is bad for our health and the planet.”
“The Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI) concluded that ‘nearly all the hydrogen produced today is dirty, and clean hydrogen is not yet market-ready. Truly clean, green hydrogen has important niche applications in industries that are difficult or costly to electrify,’ ” said McCormick. “The reduction of carbon emissions can really only result from cleaning up power generation and expanding the use of electric vehicles.”
“As proposed today, the Hydrogen Hubs with the greatest potential to clean up the primary steelmaking industry fall short of the opportunity to eliminate fossil fuels and their climate and health-harming impacts on communities,” said Hilary Lewis, Steel Director at Industrious Labs. “As the Department of Energy negotiates funding it must listen to workers and communities, and prioritize a full commitment to green hydrogen.”
Steel community residents raise concerns about transparency, impact of Hubs
Residents and community leaders in Northwest Indiana expressed deep skepticism about the lack of transparency surrounding the Hubs, despite DOE’s stated commitment to community engagement.
After repeated inquiries and a coalition letter signed by 13 organizations working in Indiana, residents met with the MachH2 Hydrogen Hub over the summer. However, residents left the meeting with few details about this multi-billion dollar project that could serve the region responsible for 50% of primary steelmaking in the US.
“Local environmental, racial justice and faith leaders must be included in discussions that will make or break Indiana’s industrial and clean energy future,” said Chris Chyung, executive director at Indiana Conservation Voters. “Now we have a plan that, if implemented wrongly, will deepen our state’s dependence on polluting fossil fuels and add new, dangerous infrastructure in already overburdened communities.”
“Fossil fuel-produced hydrogen and carbon capture and storage will irrevocably endanger the Great Lakes ecosystem while further harming the region’s already overburdened communities,” said Susan Thomas, policy director at Just Transition Northwest Indiana. “As a historic steel hub, Northwest Indiana is an epicenter in the fight for a Just Transition to renewable energy. We deserve the right to green jobs and a healthy environment, not more false solutions. These Hydrogen Hub announcements are more of the same carbon schemes from corporate polluters.”
Advocates in Pennsylvania and Ohio raised concerns about the economic viability of blue hydrogen. The ARCH2 project that will serve Pennsylvania and Ohio, which combined have four primary steelmaking plants, plans to use blue hydrogen, which communities oppose.
“Methane-derived blue hydrogen—and the carbon capture that supports it—is economic for only a few niche industries,” said Ben Hunkler, communications manager with the Ohio River Valley Institute. “Investing in these unproven, absurdly expensive technologies risks locking our region into a gas-based economy that has proven incapable of generating sustained job growth and has placed community health and safety in harm’s way.”
“Whether it’s coal or methane, we need climate-science-aligned phase-downs of all fossil fuels in steelmaking. We can’t afford to use these potentially transformative Hydrogen Hub investments to lock in anything less than the cleanest systems to move us away from fossil fuels in steelmaking,” said Margaret Hansbrough, SteelWatch Campaign Lead.
In addition to climate pollution, steel mills are a major source of health-harming air pollution, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and other pollutants. A recent report from the Sierra Club found iron and steel facilities have the most significant impact on human health of the 200 industrial facilities analyzed.
“Our recent report was a powerful reminder that the environmental and health consequences of the steel industry demand our immediate attention and action,” said Joab Schultheis, Energy Committee Chair of Sierra Club’s Hoosier (Indiana) Chapter. “We must chart a course toward cleaner, more sustainable steel production practices for the sake of our planet, communities, steel workers, and future generations.”