OPINION: There is nothing new about hydrogen. French novelist Jules Verne forecast its future in his book Mysterious Island, published nearly 150 years ago.

And 20 years ago, Shell opened a first hydrogen vehicle filling station in Iceland while BP was running experimental hydrogen-fuelled buses around London.

That early impetus was largely lost, but hydrogen is now firmly back in the limelight as governments grapple with meeting their UN climate targets.

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The US has underlined its commitment by including hydrogen in the first of a series of “energy earthshots” funded by public money.

Canada and Australia are also keenly pursuing projects that would allow hydrogen to cut their CO2 pollution.

Last week, the UK government unveiled its first-ever hydrogen strategy along with plans for a subsidy regime to speed up the buildout.

'Home-grown clean energy'

“This home-grown clean energy source has the potential to transform the way we power our lives and will be essential for tackling climate change and reaching net zero (carbon emissions),” claimed Business & Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

The plans envisages similar “contracts for difference” subsidies to those that have helped the UK build a major offshore wind industry.

Importantly for the oil and gas sector, Kwarteng made clear he sees a major role for “blue” hydrogen (made from fossil fuels coupled with carbon capture) as well as for renewables-derived “green” hydrogen.

This endorsement should accelerate pilot studies by the likes of Shell, BP and Equinor for hydrogen to be used for heating homes and fuelling heavy trucks.

Protest over natural gas role

But the strategy has also raised criticism from the renewable energy sector that it fails to “focus nearly enough” on green hydrogen.

That argument was accentuated by the resignation of Chris Jackson, the head of a UK hydrogen lobby group, in protest at the major role for natural gas.

“Blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction and at worst a lock-in for fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals,” argued Jackson (who also runs a renewables company).

The debate has also heated up after the publication of a landmark study from American academics which raises some deeper concerns.

How green is blue H2?

“How green is blue hydrogen”, by Robert Howarth from Cornell University and Mark Jacobson from Stanford, claims “the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat”.

The study highlights the huge risks of methane emissions around natural gas coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

Equinor has strongly rejected the study findings, saying the assumptions used are incorrect.

But arguments will continue over the cost and efficacy of different ways of creating hydrogen.

Many countries with natural gas reserves can be expected to fight to keep blue hydrogen at the forefront of energy debates.

The oil and gas majors themselves still have the ear of ministers but face public scepticism after years of mixed messaging over carbon dioxide.

The fossil fuel industry must tread carefully and cleverly if it is to win a debate on which its future partly depends.

What is positive is that clean hydrogen has moved from the minds of fiction writers to the desks of government ministers.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)