High school seniors all over the country just finalized their college applications, hoping to gain admission to a University of California campus, including UC Irvine in sunny Southern California. None of those students or their families know that plans are underway to use a freshman dormitory and other UC Irvine buildings in a dangerous gas industry experiment starting in 2024, their first year on campus.
Without telling UCI students, faculty, or families, SoCal Gas (SCG) filed an application with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in September asking for nearly $13 million from ratepayers to blend and burn hydrogen and methane gas in ovens, water heaters, and furnaces in UCI housing, academic buildings, and other student facilities. This includes Mesa Court, an on-campus dormitory for 2,500 freshmen.
SoCalGas says there are no safety concerns or need for CPUC hearings to review the evidence behind their proposed plan, but we know better based on their long track record of safety violations.
In 2015, SoCalGas was responsible for the largest methane gas leak in U.S. history, which the Los Angeles Times reported dumped 100,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the air north of Los Angeles for months, forcing more than 8,000 families to flee their homes. Last year, SCG and its parent company Sempra paid $1.8 billion to settle with thousands of residents sickened by the blowout.
Now, they plan on using college students as guinea pigs in a dangerous experiment.
SoCalGas Is Ignoring The Risks To Protect Their Profits
The proposal says UCI staff were involved in the creation of the proposal, which means they have been planning this massive human experiment in collaboration with SCG for months without student or faculty consent. California law requires consent and a description of any risks before human experimentation.
Since October, Climate Action Campaign has emailed and spoken with dozens of UCI students and faculty about the project. None of them had heard about it, even though SoCalGas said they would conduct stakeholder outreach starting in Q2 2022.
SoCalGas is ignoring the safety, healthy, climate, and environmental justice risks associated with burning hydrogen and methane in buildings, as documented recently by the American Medical Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, NRDC, and EarthJustice.
Although SoCalGas says that they will “collect data” on pipeline integrity, leakage, and safety during the experiment, nothing in the application guarantees that unknowing UCI students will be safe from explosions or leaks of poisonous gasses in their dorms.
SCG is the largest for-profit, gas-only utility in the US. It has a long history of using its army of lobbyists to sell elected officials on schemes to extend the use of dirty, dangerous fracked methane gas.
The gas industry’s pivot to hydrogen (blended with methane) is no accident. It’s a PR campaign to delay the transition to all-electric buildings and invest in the expensive new fossil-fuel infrastructure they will have to build and maintain on our dime. We can’t fall for their greenwashing again.
Here are some of the risks SCG and UCI left out of their proposal:
Explosions/safety: Hydrogen is highly explosive and prone to leakage
Hydrogen is one of the lightest molecules in the universe, so it leaks more easily than already-leaky methane gas. Once it leaks, hydrogen can ignite more quickly and easily and is four times as explosive as methane. Injecting hydrogen into steel pipes causes them to become brittle and more likely to explode. Hydrogen can only comprise around 7% of energy content before major safety hazards arise. The UC Irvine project proposes to blend up to 20% hydrogen with methane in steel pipes installed in the 1970s.
Health: air pollution from burning hydrogen in home appliances brings major health risks
Burning a mix of hydrogen and methane releases substantially more lung-damaging nitrous oxides (NOx) than burning methane gas alone. These risks recently prompted the American Medical Association to adopt a resolution warning of health risks from hydrogen blending in home appliances.
Equity: Hydrogen increases environmental injustice
Research has demonstrated that pollution from hydrogen fuel could widen inequality gaps. Even green hydrogen used for electricity generation would deepen inequalities in low-income communities of color where power plants are typically located. Hydrogen projects also carry very high costs, which would be forced on customers already struggling to afford rising energy costs.
Climate delay: studies show hydrogen for buildings is a false solution.
Only green hydrogen produced from 100% renewable energy can play a role in our clean energy future — but it doesn’t belong in buildings. The tiny amount of green hydrogen must be preserved for hard-to-decarbonize industrial sectors. Hydrogen-based, low-temperature heating systems consume 500% to 600% more renewable energy than electric heat pumps, which are readily available in OC and everywhere. Using hydrogen to heat buildings makes no economic sense. A peer-reviewed paper examined 32 independent studies on hydrogen’s potential for home heating, and none found a major role.
Gas Company Donations Distort Research
UCI gets significant funding for hydrogen research. Since at least 2015, UC Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program has worked with and received funding for hydrogen blending projects from the Department of Energy (DOE) and Sempra Energy subsidiaries SCG and SDG&E. UC Irvine is home to the National Fuel Cell Research Center, a project of the DOE whose 2020 annual budget for hydrogen and fuel cell research, development, and other activities was $276 million.
These industry and research ties are alarming because a study published this month in Nature finds that university energy centers that receive fossil fuel funding are more likely to support burning methane gas. As one of the country's top public research universities, UC Irvine must be held to a higher standard.
Standing Up Against SoCalGas' Greenwashing
We are out of time for fantasy technologies that “may someday” solve the problem. We must focus on solutions that work and are ready to scale now. Electrification—paired with investments in clean energy generation and battery storage—is the only approach that meets both criteria and doesn’t threaten our health and safety.
We need to see this proposal for what it is: another fossil fuel industry scheme to make money by destroying our health and future. Wasting ratepayer dollars on a scam that will not decarbonize buildings while putting UCI students and faculty at grave risk of injury from explosions and gas poisoning is not climate leadership.
The good news is that an Oregon gas company recently canceled a similar proposal after a coalition of climate, health, and social justice organizations objected, citing health, safety, cost, and feasibility concerns. It's time for us to stand up and stop this greenwashed charade.
Sierra Club and Earthjustice lawyers have filed a protest against the SCG/UCI project with the CPUC citing the reasons above, but university officials and local leaders need to hear from you. Take action below!
Take Action To Protect Students
We need your help to stop this project! Click here on your desktop or laptop to take action OR copy and paste our email linked here to send to UCI Chancellor Gillman, Professor Brouwer, Chair Rangel, and Senator Dave Min (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com).