The question of when and how life began creates a series of conundrums for many. Pointing to extreme ideas like aliens seeding life on Earth through panspermia creates a new problem – where did the aliens come from? It does not actually answer how “life” began, it only addresses the life on this planet. It begins an infinite regress, always pointing backwards to a previous cause to explain the current one. Perhaps counterintuitively, decarbonization and electrification suffer from a similar issue. To avoid the infinite regress of decarbonization, a new framework must be adopted.

When people go green by using an electric vehicle (EV) or transitioning away from a gas stove in favor of an electric appliance, all they have done is shifted their emissions backwards in a causal chain.. Now those emissions are not occurring at the end use stage! Problem solved – panspermia!

Eliminating emissions at the source is a good thing. It can also reduce net emissions in certain contexts. But in truth, it doesn’t solve the problem. These types of decisions may move your CO2 emissions out of the “Scope One” column of your emissions balance sheet, but it simply shifts the liability into the “Scope Two” CO2 emissions associated with the production of the electricity that is now being used. While many point to the grand dream of an all-electric economy, until wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro are universally available 100% of the time, electricity users have not truly decarbonized. Out of sight…out of mind?

The production of wind and solar hardware today is as energy-intensive and carbon-intensive as any other product in use. Mountains of rare earths and traditional minerals must be excavated, processed, transported, and manufactured into technology capable of harnessing natural renewable energy. Every step in that process is currently dependent on hydrocarbons – that is fossil fuels – to power the trucks and mining equipment and much of the supply chain.

When we do replace those elements one at a time, we still do not exactly decarbonize. When long-haul trucks swap diesel for electric motors, and as many other steps in the manufacturing process are converted to low-carbon processes, we are left with an all (or highly) electric economy. That electricity then has to be transmitted and distributed across millions of miles throughout the country via high voltage transmission and electrical distribution infrastructure. This process will also be carbon intensive – but more than that, it will be energy-intensive, cost-intensive, and face significant regulatory hurdles. Environmental impact studies, permitting, and regulatory compliance will add years to the process to build out the transmission infrastructure to sustain an all-electric grid.

The answer then – for decarbonizing in the foreseeable future – must be to leverage what we already have. When we review our assets, we see a major network of electrical transmission and distribution lines but also a world-leading pipeline network. Without building a single new piece of infrastructure (and thereby sparing the carbon, cost, time, and regulatory intensity) can we ever hope to decarbonize?

Through innovation, the answer is yes.

The problem with most current decarbonization strategies is that they all try to think too far outside the box. But the box is an asset. The box is our current systems and structures and know-how. So rather than taking these assets for granted or viewing them as part of the problem, we can and should think about leveraging the box differently. The box is already built, and all of the costs and emissions needed to built it are already spent.

Natural gas is already a preferable hydrocarbon to petroleum and coal because it emits around half the carbon dioxide when combusted. That is why we have extensive multi-million mile natural gas pipeline networks under our feet. What most people don’t realize is that natural gas is also one of our most effective resources for the production of hydrogen. Today this is primarily done through steam methane reforming, which generates hydrogen and carbon dioxide. But another technique, pyrolysis, converts natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon. Both high-value products that can be generated, collected and deployed to prevent CO2 emissions.

A technique that allows natural gas to flow through a network of pipes and use those same pipes as a long term storage mechanism would be ideal. (Wait a second, this already exists!) In this model, pipelines and storage tanks will safely carry and store hydrogen wherever it is needed – all in the form of methane or CH4. The CH4 would then be converted into hydrogen just before combustion on-demand and on-site by natural gas users. Burning hydrogen would eliminate CO2 emissions from natural gas and would enable turnkey decarbonization of heat and steam at scale appropriate for commercial and industrial processes.

The distributed thermal methane pyrolysis technique (one of many hydrogen production methods) leaves the carbon in a solid form to be sequestered, stored, or used for other purposes but not lost to the atmosphere as an emission. This process is carbon neutral because it stops all the carbon within the methane molecule from being emitted, but it can become carbon negative and actually remove net carbon from the atmosphere when it utilizes renewable natural gas, or biogas, from methane capture at sources like landfills, wastewater, or agricultural settings.

Now, we are no longer looking at how much we can reduce or shift back our carbon emissions, but how to reverse course on them altogether. And we can do so immediately, without permitting and construction wait times, and without adding new emissions in the process by new infrastructure build outs.

To avoid the infinite regress of decarbonization – the shifting of carbon emissions across scopes and balance sheets – we must look for options that avoid new build outs and require substantial quantities of materials that are energy-intensive to extract and transport. Relying on existing infrastructure and leveraging natural gas is one of the most valuable options on the horizon. This enables large-scale hydrogen without new build outs, effectively decarbonizing one of the largest energy-using and emitting sectors in the country.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Executive Director


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.