Methane Leaks and ARCH2: A Problem Not Yet Solved

By John McFerrin

If we don’t get methane leaks under control, the Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub (ARCH2) will be a failure.


The Appalachian Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub is not a single facility but a series of about fifteen facilities scattered around West Virginia and adjoining states. What these facilities all have in common is that they involve the use or production of hydrogen as a fuel or as a raw material for other manufacturing. They also have in common that they will be subsidized—at least initially—by the United States Department of Energy. In West Virginia alone, the Department of Energy has dedicated almost a billion dollars to this effort.

The justification for this public expenditure is that hydrogen can be valuable in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. There are several areas of the economy that are hard to decarbonize. These include heavy-duty transportation as well as steel and chemicals manufacturing.  

If we can use hydrogen for some of these purposes, industries that are currently major emitters of carbon dioxide can become near-zero carbon dioxide emitters. The United States Department of Energy estimates that the Hydrogen Hubs all around the country will result in “Greenhouse Gas Reduction of 25 million Metric Tons Per Year.” Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations presentation, October 23, 2024. This is for all seven Hubs around the country, not just the one centered in West Virginia.

The facilities that make up ARCH2 are just proposed. They have not been finally approved and may never be. Lots of ideas never work out, whether from bad planning, a change in market conditions, or dozens of reasons large and small. Who can forget the $84 billion that a Chinese firm was going to invest in a “natural gas hub” in West Virginia. In 2017, Governor Justice was doing a happy dance about “the largest investment in our state’s history.” Since then, nothing. And who can forget Hyperloop, another “game changer.” That had Governor Justice doing another happy dance in 2020. Nothing came of that either.

That nothing beyond the announcement of these, and many other projects never materialized may not be anybody’s fault. They just illustrate the uncertainty of any project. ARCH2 could be a great success; it could end up on the same scrap heap.

All we can say for certain is that the future of the ARCH2 is uncertain. Nobody knows all the stumbling blocks that will appear along the way and how well we will be able to overcome them.

There are, however, two stumbling blocks that we know are there. If we don’t figure out how to overcome them, ARCH2 will never meet its goals.

Stumbling Block Number 1: Carbon Capture and Storage Does Not Work

Most hydrogen comes from either water or natural gas. In a process called electrolysis, water can be split into hydrogen and water. Using different processes, methane can also be divided.  

Most of the projects that make up ARCH2 involve taking natural gas, which is mostly methane, and splitting the methane into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Putting that hydrogen to useful purposes is one of the goals. The other is to do something with the carbon dioxide so that it is not released into the air. Since reducing emissions of carbon dioxide is one of the goals of ARCH2, it cannot be a success unless it uses the hydrogen and avoids releasing the carbon dioxide into the air.

The current plan for avoiding releasing carbon dioxide is carbon capture and storage. It is only theoretical. According to the theory, it should be possible to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by capturing it and injecting it deep underground. In practice, nobody has ever done it, at least not on the scale and with the level of success that ARCH2 contemplates. A future Highlands Voice article will discuss in more detail the potential and pitfalls of carbon capture.

Stumbling Block Number 2: Methane Leaks

Methane is the main component of natural gas; it is the gas that would be used by ARCH2 to produce hydrogen.  

Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas. Although carbon dioxide lasts longer in the atmosphere, over the next 20 years methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. The point of ARCH2 is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by converting methane into cleaner-burning hydrogen. If, in the course of converting methane into cleaner-burning hydrogen, we allow methane to be released, the increase in greenhouse gases will soon overwhelm any savings that result from burning hydrogen rather than natural gas. One pound of methane leaked anywhere in the hydrogen production process will offset as much as 80 pounds of carbon dioxide that might be saved by using hydrogen as a fuel instead of natural gas.

The calculations by the United States Department of Energy are that, nationwide, the Hydrogen Hubs will result in a reduction of 25 million tons of greenhouse gases per year.  

The calculations assume, however, that the natural gas and the methane that makes it up will somehow jump out of the ground and make it to the Hydrogen Hub for processing with very few leaks.  

This assumption is unrealistic. Methane leaks all along the natural gas supply chain. It leaks at the well head; it leaks along the pipelines; it leaks at compressor stations. Because methane is colorless and odorless, leaks are not always detected. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1.7% of the methane produced by the natural gas industry is leaked. This is almost certainly a low estimate. Researchers at Stanford University have published data which suggests that in some areas 9% of a well’s production is leaked. There are other estimates lying between these two extremes. If methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas emissions from leaks could overwhelm any greenhouse savings that may come from extracting hydrogen from methane and using that as a fuel.

Fortunately, this is a fixable problem, at least to some extent. There are new detection technologies being developed all the time. There are operational and maintenance steps that gas companies could take, although they haven’t yet. Taking all of these would not stop all leaks and may or may not stop enough to make Hydrogen Hubs worthwhile. If the steps are not taken, however, the Hydrogen Hubs are not going to be effective in addressing global warming. Even if we solve the problem of disposing of carbon dioxide, ARCH2 will never help slow climate change so long as it leaks the much more potent greenhouse gas: methane.

Note: to learn more about the ARCH2 project, go to