The Fossil Fuel Trojan Horse At COP28
Blue ammonia, the corrupt climate technology.
In the back rooms and on the main stages at COP28, there is plenty of discourse around alternative, eco-friendly energy. But it isn’t all about wind, solar, geothermal, tidal or nuclear energy. There is a relative newcomer on the block, blue ammonia, which the President of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, is highly fond of. He has praised it as being a ‘low-carbon product’ and wants to see wider adoption of this apparent miracle fuel. Although, he would do, as the oil company he is the CEO of is one of the world’s leading blue ammonia producers. In fact, Al Jaber sent a letter to all COP28 delegates, calling for the dramatic scale-up and doubling of blue ammonia ‘low carbon’ fuels. But blue ammonia is not what it seems. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Far from being low carbon, it actually produces up to three times the emissions of other fossil fuels. So why is Al Jaber pushing it? Profiteering self-interest? Or something more sinister?
So, what is ammonia? Well, other than being the compound that gives stale urine its distinctive smell, it is a vital component of fertiliser but can also be burned as a fuel. A more recent application is a way to efficiently transport hydrogen. Hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells are a brilliant carbon-free way to transport and use energy. However, hydrogen is very challenging to transport, as it takes up a vast amount of space and can easily leak. Ammonia is a stable and dense liquid that is easy to transport and is comprised of a nitrogen atom bonded to 3 hydrogen atoms. Nitrogen is also an abundant gas in our atmosphere and doesn’t create any greenhouse gas effect. So the idea is to ship hydrogen around the world in ammonia form, which is far easier than shipping hydrogen, then split it into nitrogen and hydrogen at the point of use, using the hydrogen as fuel and releasing the nitrogen into the atmosphere.
But how do you make ammonia? Getting the nitrogen is easy; our atmosphere is full of it. But the hydrogen part is more complicated. This is where the different colours of hydrogen, which you have likely heard of before, come in. By far, the most common type of hydrogen today is grey hydrogen, which is derived from steam reduction of natural gas, which breaks it down into carbon dioxide and raw hydrogen. Obviously, this gives it a sizeable carbon footprint, so we are trying to use other production methods. If you zap water with electricity, it breaks down into oxygen and hydrogen in a process known as electrolysis. Hydrogen produced this way using renewable energy is known as green hydrogen, whereas if nuclear energy is used, it is known as pink hydrogen. Both have extremely low carbon emissions and are a candidate for being future net-zero fuels.
But there is one problem. Electrolysis has far lower yields than stream reduction. As such, it is far more expensive.
This is where blue hydrogen comes in. It is exactly the same as grey hydrogen, taking advantage of the high yields of steam reduction, except the carbon dioxide is captured and stored away (using CCS). This way, you get a cheap, low-carbon hydrogen fuel. If you then use the Haber process to turn blue hydrogen into more easily transportable ammonia, you get blue ammonia. The fuel Al Jaber is pushing.
Al Jaber is the CEO of ADNOC, the state oil company of the UAE. ADNOC and Armco (the world’s largest oil company) already have blue hydrogen and blue ammonia production lines set up and operational. In fact, the ADNOC has already started delivery of blue hydrogen to countries like Japan. They have marketed blue ammonia as an affordable low-carbon fuel that can accelerate our transition to net-zero.
But sadly, that simply isn’t true.
You see, the description I (and these oil companies) gave of blue ammonia missed some key issues, namely methane leakage, conversion issues, and CCS inefficiencies.
Let’s start with methane leakage. Blue ammonia is inexorably linked to natural gas (which is mainly composed of methane) drilling. While we are good at sniffing out and extracting this stuff, we are terrible at ensuring it doesn’t leak out into the environment. Around 3.2% of all extracted natural gas leaks into the atmosphere. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if methane wasn’t one of the worst greenhouse gases out there, with 80 times more global warming power than carbon dioxide.
This issue is compounded by the pitifully low conversion rates of ammonia. The Haber process is the reversible reaction that turns hydrogen and nitrogen into ammonia and back again. But, the Haber process isn’t passive; it requires energy and is woefully inefficient. Typical roundtrip efficiencies for power-to-ammonia-to-power with the Haber process are only 33%–43%. Moreover, the steam reforming and CCS needed to create blue hydrogen both require energy and give blue hydrogen an efficiency of around 77% (energy in compared to potential energy out).
As such, you would need to extract 3.94 times the amount of natural gas to produce one watt of power from blue ammonia, as you would produce one watt from straight-up burning the natural gas. This higher demand massively inflates the level of methane leakage associated with blue ammonia.
There is also an issue with the CCS used in blue hydrogen production. While the CCS systems used here can be more efficient than the Direct Air Capture (DAC) systems that remove carbon dioxide from the ambient air, as the carbon dioxide concentrations from steam reduction are far higher, they are still horrifically inefficient. Multiple studies have proven that they only capture up to 58% of the carbon dioxide emitted from steam reduction.
Now, if you use a technology that reduces fuel emissions by 58% but requires you to process 3.94 times more fossil fuels, you create 2.29 times more carbon dioxide!
If you crunch the numbers, blue ammonia emits 2.5 to 3 times more greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) than the fossil fuels we already use, such as coal, natural gas, or even diesel.
Make no mistake, blue ammonia is not only demonstrably not low carbon; it might be one of the most polluting forms of energy we have ever created.
So, why is the President of COP28, oil companies and oil lobbyists hypocritically pushing this technology at COP28? Possibly, the most crucial climate summit ever, as it is our last chance saloon to save the world from our self-made apocalypse.
Well, I can’t know for sure. But there are some undeniable factors at play here.
Firstly, the time crunch on fossil fuels. At our current consumption rate, only about 50 years of natural gas reserves are left on Earth. But imagine, if you will, that all natural gas production and consumption switched to blue ammonia. Production and consumption rates of natural gas would quadruple! Now, the Earth’s reserves would only last 12.5 years. I think that oil companies know that they won’t be able to extract natural gas (legally or profitably) after 2050 (when, at our current rate of consumption, there will still be plenty of natural reserves) and that blue ammonia isn’t really a climate solution that can survive past 2050 net-zero. Instead, they see blue ammonia as a way to speed up natural gas consumption and profit off the entirety of their natural gas reserves before 2050, when they are blocked from doing so.
Moreover, as a simple misrepresentation of the technology can make it appear low-carbon, it can be pushed as a viable technology we must rapidly adopt to save the planet. This false guise weaponises blue ammonia against the climate movement and is why I called it a Trojan Horse.
There is also the issue of global influence. The UAE is a significant part of OPEC, an organisation of oil-producing states that work together to have cohesive international policies, oil production and pricing to “protect the crude oil market.” 15% of US oil imports, 40% of EU oil imports, and 55% of Chinese oil imports came from OPEC. These countries profoundly depend on OPEC for their energy needs. As such, OPEC countries have vast international influence! In fact, the US trying to control this influence over it is one of the major reasons for the two Gulf wars, hostility towards Iran and the invasion of Iraq. Al Jaber is well entrenched in the UAE government, having previously been the Minister of Industry. He will know that this is why the UAE has a place on the international political scene and won’t want to interrupt it. Blue ammonia offers an ability to falsely appease climate demands whilst retaining this stranglehold on the global energy market and the influence that comes with it.
But there might be far less conspiratorial reasons.
The UAE’s flourishing economy only exists because of oil. A third of its GDP comes from its oil reserves, and the rest is supported by capital created from said oil reserves. If they agreed to reduce production, their economy would be utterly stuffed and crumble unless they could offer an alternative and equally lucrative product (i.e., blue ammonia). In the same vein, Al Jaber got the vast majority of his net worth, some $2.41 million, from being an oil CEO. He wants to keep his company, its infrastructure and its position in the market viable. He is hugely incentivised to push these not-fit-for-purpose climate solutions that revolve around his already operational natural gas and hydrogen production.
Whatever their motivations, the fact that oil nations, oil executives and oil lobbyists are pushing for blue ammonia adoption shows they are unable to envision or are terrified of, a future with a different status quo and are willing to try and shove pseudoscience and nonsensical solutions to keep things as they all. All at the expense of the planet’s and yours and my well-being.
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Sources: Euro News, Aramco, The National News, Energy Tracker Asia, National Grid, Royal Society, IEA, Royal Society, Kaleej Times, Boycott COP28, Hydrogen Insight, EIA, EIA, Cambridge Econometrics, Wolfram Alpha, EDF, Science Direct, Royal Society Of Chemistry, TS2