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Big Oil’s Long Bet on Hydrogen Offers a Climate Lifeline

The clean-burning energy source is still too expensive to compete with fossil fuels, but oil companies are investing heavily.

A hydrogen filling station in Dresden, Germany.

A hydrogen filling station in Dresden, Germany.

Photographer: Sebastian Kahnert/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
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On particularly cold winter days, the vast majority of the U.K.’s energy comes from burning natural gas. That arrangement will have to change radically—and soon—if the country is to hit its legally mandated target of net-zero emissions by 2050. As other countries adopt similar targets to align with the Paris climate agreement, they too will have to find an alternative to natural gas. That leaves fossil fuel companies with a ticking clock.

Hydrogen burns cleanly, leaving only water behind. That’s made it an attractive alternative fuel source—not just for governments looking to satisfy climate mandates, but also for oil companies trying to ensure their continued relevance. Oil-and-gas majors such as Shell, Equinor, and BP have spent tens of millions of dollars on pilot projects. Now in the face of record-low oil prices, frozen international travel, and growing shareholder unease over greenhouse gas emissions, investing in hydrogen has taken on a new urgency.