Canada needs to build pipelines for oil and gas — but for hydrogen, too, clean energy advocates say

As the federal government puts the finishing touches on a national hydrogen strategy designed to kickstart the budding sector, some experts say one of the vital ingredients for the industry to flourish is to build more pipelines.

While pipelines are often associated with moving oil and natural gas, they are equally important for the developing cleaner sources of fuel like hydrogen, according to Maggie Hanna, a fellow at the Energy Futures Lab.

After a 30-year career in the oilpatch as a geologist, Hanna’s focus is now on technology and innovation.

Instead of oil and natural gas, she believes hydrogen, hydro, nuclear, solar and wind will be the dominant energy sources a few decades from now as the country moves toward lowering its emissions.

Still, for that clean energy transition to happen, the country will need to put more pipes in the ground.

“We got to get over this friggin’ pipeline thing,” said Hanna, with a smile as she shook her head. “It is the No. 1 safest way to move any fluid.”

Not only does the country still depend heavily on pipelines to move oil and natural gas, but many other sources of energy may also depend on pipelines.

Hanna is a big supporter of utilizing hydrogen for heating buildings, powering trains and long-haul trucks, and for industrial sectors like manufacturing, among other uses.

Hydrogen has the potential to be a major energy source in the future and help the country lower its emissions in the future. That’s why the federal government is set to release a national hydrogen strategy before the end of the year, which is expected to include financial incentives and other measures to fuel the sector’s growth.

Pipelines would be needed to move hydrogen across the country and for export, said Hanna.

“In liquid forms and gaseous forms, mixed in with methane,” she said, among other examples. There would also be a need to move carbon dioxide emissions to be sequestered underground or used in industrial sectors.

Pipeline backlash

Over the last 20 years, oil and natural gas pipelines have garnered much more attention across North America and have attracted a significant amount of criticism because of concern about the impact that expanding the fossil fuel industry will have on climate change.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said the discussion shouldn’t focus on vilifying one industry, but instead be centred around how the country can lower its emissions in the future.

“I think we’re all going to get a lot more sophisticated about this. I mean pipelines have become a lightning rod,” he said. “Pipelines aren’t the issue, emissions are the issue.”

Whether the country will need more pipelines in the future to move materials like hydrogen, O’Regan said it’s an important question “because all of that will require significant investment.”

Team Canada 

To get more pipes in the ground in the future, some argue a so-called ‘Team Canada’ approach is necessary. 

While Alberta and Quebec have sparred often in recent years over oil and gas pipeline development, both are supporters of growing the hydrogen industry.

Some hydrogen proponents say there is strong support for the sector from coast-to-coast.

“It’s the one energy solution that isn’t divisive across Canada,” said Stephen Beatty, a vice-president with Toyota Canada, which is part of a Quebec hydrogen coalition, which formed earlier this year.

Hydrogen is environmentally-friendly and not a pollutant, he said, like other materials that move by pipeline.

“I think if you look at the history of energy politics over the last year or two, you’ve seen pipeline debates, you’ve seen lots of other things happening. The reality is that every major part of the country has a potential to be a player in hydrogen,” he said, in a phone interview from a dealership in Ajax, Ontario.

Protesters gather in opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline project in June, 2019. (Maggie MacPherson)

Canada is already one of the larger hydrogen producers in the world today, producing approximately three million tonnes a year using steam methane reformation (SMR) of natural gas, a process that’s drawn scrutiny for its carbon emissions.

Environmentalists say the climate benefit of hydrogen is highly dependent on how it is made. 

Government officials and analysts believe Canada has what it takes to develop low or zero-carbon hydrogen through a variety of tools, including renewable energy or, in the case of natural gas, utilizing carbon-capture technology, like that in Alberta

Meanwhile, provinces like B.C., Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland have significant hydroelectric resources and Ontario has nuclear energy, which can be used in off-peak times to produce hydrogen from water through a process called electrolysis.

Pipeline problems possible

Alberta government officials say the province could be a world leader in hydrogen production. That’s why it is so important for governments across the country to work hand-in-hand.

“It provides investor confidence that they’re going to come and set up shop in Alberta. They’re not going to have to worry about fighting with other levels of government as well,” said Dale Nally, Alberta’s associate minister of natural gas

“We’ve seen what can happen in other areas where we’re not aligned, whether it’s building pipelines or fossil fuels or even natural gas,” he said.

Those experiences are why he is convinced there still would be opposition to more pipeline construction, especially among activists, even for moving materials like hydrogen.

“I have no doubt that the same challenges that we see with oil and gas will also be there for hydrogen. The difference is our eyes are open now and we’re going into this with our eyes wide open,” he said.

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