A powerful coalition of industry interests paid for a peer-reviewed study on the benefits of hydrogen as an energy source, the Boston Globe reported in an article published Wednesday. The study neglected to mention the significant involvement of fossil fuel players in drafting the text. According to documents obtained by the Globe, these industry interests were so involved in the research that they were “allowed to review and suggest changes before the study was released,” including drafting large portions of the study’s recommendations to policymakers.
The Globe’s report deals with a paper published in Frontiers in Energy Research in September by a team of researchers at University of Massachusetts, Lowell. In the study, the authors review research on different types of hydrogen and make recommendations for Massachusetts to best incorporate hydrogen into its energy future.
“A hydrogen economy has the potential to provide economic benefits, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and sector coupling to provide a resilient energy grid,” the authors write in the paper’s introduction.
The research was funded by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), a business coalition representing a variety of industries; their association was disclosed in the paper. However, emails obtained through a public records request by the Globe show that some of the association’s fossil fuel and natural gas members, including natural gas giant National Grid, that would benefit from a positive study on hydrogen’s benefits had been directly asked to fund the research and review the final paper—and the study’s authors were aware of this outreach. This was not mentioned in the final paper.
Over the past few years, the popularity of hydrogen fuel as an alternative energy source has skyrocketed in the conversation around the energy transition. The oil and gas industry is particularly enthusiastic about hydrogen; in addition to types of hydrogen that can be made with natural gas and other fossil fuels, the idea that hydrogen made from renewable energy—known as green hydrogen—could simply replace fossil fuels in existing pipelines and infrastructure is alluring to an industry anxious about a coming energy transition. The study, however, neglects to mention many of the issues with this concept, including hydrogen’s questionable application for home heating. Several non-industry-funded studies have found that hydrogen would not be an economic or sensible carbon-free choice for heating homes.
The Globe reports that one of the study’s coauthors, Mary Usovicz, a former director of business development at UMass Lowell, “had spent decades working in the gas industry.” A lobbyist for AIM, Robert Rio, was friendly with Usovicz, and met with her weekly and was allowed access to the study before it was published. In one email obtained by the Globe, Rio was provided a Microsoft Word document of the study; track changes show that Rio had a hand in drafting portions of the introduction as well as recommendations at the end of the study geared toward policymakers.
“It is our conclusion that the use of hydrogen in some applications which currently use fossil fuels will reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions and help contribute to meeting the Commonwealth’s 2050 net-zero carbon goals and if widely adopted, help reduce CO2 emissions globally,” a section almost entirely drafted by Rio read. “We believe that the challenges related to the use of hydrogen – cost, and safety primarily can be overcome with proper and appropriate regulations.”
Representatives from National Grid, meanwhile, were also allowed to provide comments on a draft. National Grid was among a group of AIM members and fossil fuel interests that substantially funded the study—which the paper’s lead author, Christopher Niezrecki, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering, was aware of. In January 2021, records obtained by the Globe show, Usovicz emailed Niezrecki to inform him that a group of energy and pipeline companies, including National Grid, Eversource, and Enbridge, had kicked in more than $50,000 to fund the study.
“While UMass Lowell has no opinion on the use of green hydrogen in Massachusetts, it has extensive faculty expertise on the topics of advanced energy and sustainability and a long history of partnership with industry,” UMass Lowell spokesperson Jonathan Strunk told Earther in an email. “The university’s green hydrogen report evaluated the challenges and opportunities posed by green hydrogen for further civic and scientific discussion through the lens of multiple disciplines ranging from engineering to economics. The research has gone through the peer review process, is in accordance with university academic and research policies and UMass Lowell stands by its research.” Representatives from AIM did not return our request for comment.
“We were eager to support a study that would allow us to learn more about hydrogen’s potential as a decarbonization solution,” National Grid told the Globe.
As we reported last week, the fossil fuel industry is already finding ways to fund its interests at academic centers and up its standing in the eyes of policymakers. However, the circumstances around this study show how industry interests and talking points can weasel their way into peer-reviewed research. And getting research like this out into the public can be a win for the industry in terms of policy moves: Usovicz met with a state representative, who later introduced two hydrogen bills into the House, as the research was getting off the ground last year.
“My personal take is this should not have been published in a peer reviewed journal as it is, because I think the presentation is biased, slanted, and misleading in a way that’s hard to defend academically,” said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has published research on hydrogen, told the Boston Globe.