Few parts of the UK have attracted as much government attention in recent months as northeast England. Although Conservative mayor Ben Houchen is favourite to win Thursday’s Tees Valley mayoral election, ministers have left nothing to chance. The 34-year-old has hosted visits from Boris Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. Nearby Hartlepool, where the Tories’ Jill Mortimer is the bookies’ favourite to grab the seat from Labour in this week’s by-election, has received a similar love-bombing. Houchen’s campaign has had a distinctly green tinge. He has campaigned on a ticket of clean industrial rebirth in an area ravaged by the closures of steel and chemicals works. Hydrogen has been at its heart — an element that in just a few years has propelled into the mainstream. The gas, the most abundant matter in the universe, has been hailed as key to cleaning up global carbon emissions, for use in heating and transport. Its only by-product in combustion is water. Huge vested interests lie behind the rise of hydrogen: oil giants such as Shell, BP and Norway’s Equinor have staked their futures on natural gas as a less-polluting alternative to oil. Shell did so in 2015 with its £47 billion takeover of BG, the rump of privatised British Gas. BP has been investing in liquefied natural gas terminals and fields from Egypt to west Africa. In 2018, it spent $10.5 billion on BHP Billiton’s US shale gas assets. But those bold bets have soured amid a backlash against fossil fuels of all types, led by the Extinction Rebellion movement and inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Now the oil majors hope that by stripping the carbon from their methane to create hydrogen, they can ensure a market for it remains. Equinor has taken to Twitter with an advertising campaign: “Is it high time for hydrogen in the UK?” A similar lobbying push is under way from the owners of the pipes that transport the gas. Companies including Cadent and Northern Gas Networks are promoting the role of hydrogen amid concern that their pipelines, worth billions of pounds, risk becoming “stranded assets” as gas is phased out. Dame Julia King, chairwoman of the Climate Change Committee’s adaptation committee says while hydrogen will have a vital role in cleaning up industries such as steel-making, and heavy transport from trucking to shipping, “it’s not the silver bullet for getting to net zero”. Replacing natural gas in all homes with hydrogen is not feasible because “you would need enormous quantities of hydrogen … that would be an expensive thing to do”. BP is also exploring the development of a blue hydrogen plant on Teesside, whose carbon would be handled by those projects. The oil giants have no choice: without hydrogen, the days are numbered for natural gas.
Times 2nd May 2021 read more »