Fossil hydrogen will not fix the climate – only a phase out of fossil fuels can truly deliver

20th January 2022, London – One of the few fossil hydrogen plants in the world that uses a carbon capture system, Shell’s Quest project in Canada, has the same carbon footprint as 1.2 million petrol cars, despite the company using the project to boast of how it is tackling global warming.

A new investigation from Global Witness today reveals that despite Shell claiming to have captured 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide at its hydrogen plant in less than five years, it emitted another 7.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the same period.

Just 48% of the plant’s carbon emissions are captured, Global Witness found, falling woefully short of the 90% carbon capture rate promised by industry for fossil hydrogen projects – also referred to as ‘blue’ hydrogen. This rate drops to only 39% when including other greenhouse gas emissions from Shell’s project.  

Despite allowing more carbon to enter the atmosphere than it captures, Shell lauds the Quest facility as an example of how it is tackling global heating. Shell claims the project demonstrates that carbon capture systems are “safe and effective” and is a “thriving example” of how this technology can significantly reduce carbon emissions, yet the company’s promotional materials fail to mention the huge volume of climate-destroying emissions that reach the atmosphere.

This research delivers a serious blow to proponents of fossil hydrogen who are pushing for more public funds to support its use, with $654 million of the $1 billion cost of Quest having come from Canadian government subsidies, yet despite this vast expense it has failed to deliver anywhere near the cut in emissions needed to tackle global heating. 

Dominic Eagleton, Senior Gas Campaigner at Global Witness, said:

“For years Shell has repeatedly used this project to show they are acting on climate change but given its huge carbon footprint it is impossible to describe these claims as anything but misleading. Beyond the PR and greenwash the simple fact is that Shell’s hydrogen plant is creating more emissions than it is capturing and is therefore contributing to the climate crisis.”

“Oil and gas companies' promotion of fossil hydrogen is a fig leaf for them to carry on with their toxic practices – the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. The single best way for companies like Shell to help tackle the climate crisis is to phase out all fossil fuel operations, rather than find ways to hide their climate-wrecking activity behind false solutions.”

“Shell’s woeful showing is yet another nail in the coffin for claims made by industry that fossil hydrogen is climate friendly. Governments cannot let the wool be pulled over their eyes to invest vital public funds in projects that will not deliver what’s needed to avert climate disaster. Instead, they should use that money to end our reliance on fossil fuels and direct it towards renewable alternatives.”

The study also shows how Shell’s project is part of the company’s controversial tar sands operations in Alberta. Tar sands are notorious for being one of the most environmentally damaging extractive developments in the world. It has been criticised for encroaching on the land of indigenous people, resulting in large-scale deforestation and land disturbance, as well as air and water pollution.

In light of these findings, Global Witness is calling on governments around the world to resist demands from industry to provide financial and regulatory support for new fossil hydrogen projects and instead work to phase out existing ones and promote renewable based alternatives. More broadly Global Witness wants to see a rapid phase out of fossil gas and with it, an end to the industry’s destructive impacts on Indigenous, Black and Brown communities.

Shell had not responded to several requests for comment by the time of publication.