It doesn’t take long to find the thousands of claims that green hydrogen companies have staked on the Nova Scotia Registry of Claims (NovaROC) map, once you realize they’re there.
In the last nine months, at least three companies have taken out exploration licences covering more than 100,000 hectares (more than 250,000 acres) of Nova Scotia.
Unlike so many of the other exploration licences that cover the province, which are concentrated around historic gold mines and possible deposits of gold and a few other metals, these recent licences are clustered primarily in areas with salt deposits.
“There are no special conditions on these licences,” says Natural Resources and Renewables spokesperson Patricia Jreige in an email. Nor is there a limit to how many licences one company can take out.
Jreige explains that exploration licences are issued for two-year terms, and licence-holders must submit a report of work done and data collected on the claims, and pay a renewal fee that increases the longer the licence is held. The current fee per claim is $10, and an exploration licence can include up to 80 adjacent claims, says Jreige.
Some of the recent licences taken out by green hydrogen operators near Port Hawkesbury are in water supply areas. When that is the case, Jreige says the utility operator is to be notified.
Salt caverns are often used to store hydrocarbons, and Nova Scotians have not forgotten the highly controversial project by Alton Gas Natural Gas Storage project, which planned to flush brine out of salt caverns near Stewiake, and dispose of it into the Shubenacadie River.
It’s all about hydrogen
Now, however, underground salt deposits throughout Nova Scotia are being claimed by people eager to get into the production of “green” hydrogen.”
A little background on what that’s all about.
In recent months, there has been a great deal of hype about hydrogen, which is being touted by some as a panacea for the transition away from fossil fuels.
Others, however, call the sudden interest in hydrogen a “cult” or an “economic bubble.” In his keynote address at the opening of the World Hydrogen Congress in October 2022, analyst Michael Liebreich said hydrogen can’t be seen as a “solution to climate change” until we deal with hydrogen as a “problem in climate change.”
Hydrogen, a colourless gas, is an energy carrier that “can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources,” explains the US Department of Energy. It is assigned colours based on how carbon-intensive its production is and how these relate to climate protection.
If the electricity used in the process involves natural gas and no carbon capture, the hydrogen produced is considered “grey.”
“Blue” hydrogen is produced using natural gas, but carbon emissions are meant to be stored or processed using carbon capture and storage technologies. But this may be no improvement over grey hydrogen because of methane leaks. A 2021 study notes that for this reason, “the use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds.”
For hydrogen to qualify as “green,” it has to be produced with 100% renewable energy, which perhaps explains why some big oil- and gas-producing countries like Canada and Saudi Arabia are now greenwashing blue hydrogen by ditching the colour and just calling it “clean.”
Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservative government has clearly jumped aboard the hydrogen bandwagon, creating a new “hydrogen innovation program” and changing legislation to accommodate it. In September, Houston announced that the province had “set a target to offer leases for five gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 to support its budding green hydrogen industry.”
But Nova Scotia’s “budding” green hydrogen industry can’t really do any “budding” until the massive wind farms — onshore, offshore, or both — needed to produce it are up and running, something that will take years.
And for all the lofty talk about Nova Scotia becoming a “leader in green hydrogen production,” there has been very little talk about the recent rush to lay claim to the province’s underground salt deposits.
However, a search of the NovaROC site shows that the green hydrogen firms have been busy doing just that.
In March this year, a company called Canada Fortescue Future Industries took out four exploration licences — something that can be done from anywhere in the world using the online NovaROC map and a credit card.
Fortescue’s claims cover nearly 3,000 hectares.
Canada Fortescue Future Industries is part of the Australian family of businesses that includes Fortsecue Future Industries, a subsidiary of the giant Fortescue Metals Group, founded by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, who is still non-executive board chair.
The Fortescue name may be familiar. In August this year, Fortsecue made headlines with its plans to set up wind farms for green hydrogen in southwest Newfoundland.
The exploration licences taken out by Canada Fortescue Future Industries in Nova Scotia are near Wallace and Malagash in northern Nova Scotia, and in Richmond County in Cape Breton.
Fortescue’s four licences pale next to the number taken out by EverWind Fuels and by another company owned by EverWind’s founder and president, Trent Vichie.
On February 25 this year, 4398437 Nova Scotia Company, of which Vichie is president, director and secretary, began staking claims in Nova Scotia, and in a week obtained 54 exploration licenses. Then on October 20, EverWind Fuels took out another three.
Between those two companies, Vichie, a native of Australia who now lives in New York, has claims covering more than 53,500 hectares in Nova Scotia.
Most are around Port Hawkesbury, with others near Port Hood in Inverness County, and others are on mainland Nova Scotia near Pomquet and Antigonish.
In September, the Halifax Examiner and The Energy Mix reported on EverWind Fuels’ Port Tupper project to produce green hydrogen and ammonia for export to Europe, reporting later published by The Guardian.
For those articles, the Examiner interviewed Vichie. He didn’t mention the 57 exploration licences, but to be fair, nor was he asked about them as there was no — and still isn’t any — mention of them on the EverWind website, at least none a search of the website reveals.
The Examiner sent a list of questions to EverWind Fuels about the exploration licences. Spokesperson Lynn Hammond replied with a statement, which reads in part:
EverWind is evaluating storage options for clean fuels made from H2 [hydrogen], including for green ammonia and green hydrogen, this work is longer term in nature and may involve above ground tanks or geologic storage. This evaluation includes holding exploration licences for consideration. Any of EverWind’s current and future activities are and will be subject to Environmental Reviews and extensive consultation. While there are no exploration activities currently underway, any option to undertake exploration will be done with the review and support of Mi’kmaq communities, any solution IF pursued will mitigate or eliminate adverse environmental impacts. That commitment to Mi’kmaq has already been provided. A number of green hydrogen companies in Nova Scotia have mineral exploration licenses, as reported in All Nova Scotia in August, 2022.
Green Hydrogen International
Another big player in the salt rush in Nova Scotia is Green Hydrogen International, or GHI, with its “Spirit of Scotia Green Hydrogen Production Hub” project, which it says is “positioning Nova Scotia as a global leader in green hydrogen production.”
GHI CEO Brian Maxwell started staking claims on February 2 this year, even before EverWind Fuels and Fortescue.
According to the NovaROC site, Maxwell now holds 47 exploration licences covering more than 49,200 hectares in Nova Scotia.
Although Maxwell holds a few in Richmond County in Cape Breton, the vast majority of his licences are in Hants and Colchester countries, surrounding the site of the now-defunct Alton Gas project.
Unlike EverWind Fuels, on its website GHI does mention — in an oblique way — its exploration licences, saying that it has “130,000 acres of storage grade salt rights secured across Nova Scotia.”
In an interview from Egypt, where he is attending COP27 (the annual conference of the Parties to the United Nations Frameworks Convention on Climate Change), Maxwell tells the Examiner he started looking at Nova Scotia in February because salt and storage caverns “are a fundamental piece of the green hydrogen production process.”
Maxwell — who grew up in Calgary and now lives in Texas where GHI has plans for another large green hydrogen project — is a geologist by training. He says that the places around the world that are going to produce the most green hydrogen and scale it up are the ones “naturally endowed with salt that’s good for storage.”
So that makes Nova Scotia one of the best places on the entire planet to produce green hydrogen at that scale. You’ve got an amazing offshore wind resource that is very strong and a lot of space. You can build a lot of offshore wind that’s way over anything the province would need for electricity use itself. And you can use that offshore wind to create green hydrogen and export into the world. That’s why the Germans and Europe are so interested, and [why there is] the big push on the federal level.
Maxwell says GHI hasn’t even begun its exploration on the licences yet, and they are at a “very, very early” stage in the Nova Scotia project.
Maxwell says he is very familiar with the Alton Gas project, and aware of how controversial it was. But, he says, his project is not to store hydrocarbons, and he says storage is “part of the equation” of green hydrogen production, or it won’t be economic. Hydrogen can be moved to the storage caverns using pipelines, he says.
Another difference between GHI’s and the Alton Gas project, Maxwell says, is the process to remove the salt brine that would be used to prepare the storage caverns.
“We do not dump into rivers,” he tells the Examiner. “Even in Texas, and they let you do a lot of things in Texas, they won’t let you dump brine into rivers and estuaries.”
“So, I think fundamentally the Alton project was wrong from the get-go,” he says.
He explains that in Texas and other places where salt caverns are prepared for fuel storage, the brine is typically pumped deep into porous sandstone layers and salty water reservoirs 2 or 2.5 kilometers underground. He says while this is more expensive, it is what is done in other parts of the world.
Maxwell believes this could also work in Nova Scotia, and says he intends to meet with First Nations and local communities to explain the project.
However, at this point, Maxwell is not setting any deadlines for the GHI project.
GHI’s website refers to “offshore wind” as the electricity source, a hydrogen “output” of 43 billion kilograms (43 million tonnes) a year, and a “size” of 500 gigawatts (GW).
Maxwell clarifies that the 500 GW figure is an “astronomical one” and at this point “aspirational.”
He explains that it is the total number that he calculated for Nova Scotia’s offshore wind production, “if the province wanted to go ‘all in’ on green hydrogen then up to about 20% of the offshore territorial waters of Nova Scotia could be used for wind.”
Please note that this is a theoretical possibility number. If the province really wants to go ‘all in’ on being a green hydrogen super-power this is what I figure could be feasible to build over the 30-50 years. I think starting the offshore development planning and bidding process now is important as each project has about a 10-year development lead time, and major delays will allow other parts of the world to be first to develop their hubs. There will only be a few large export regions and I think Nova Scotia has a chance to be the major one if this bidding process is structured and executed properly.
Maxwell says GHI’s plans depend on what the province does. “We need the offshore wind tender to go ahead before we decide. We have to know where the offshore wind is going to be, and where it will come ashore.”
That doesn’t put a damper on his enthusiasm, however. “Green hydrogen could fundamentally transform the economy of eastern Canada,” Maxwell says. “It could be one of the most important economic developments in Nova Scotian history. And Canadian history, honestly.”
And, he says, “Nova Scotia — given it has salt storage potential and lots of wind — is one of the best places in the world to produce green H2 [hydrogen].”
‘Rainbows and leprechauns’
Not everyone is quite as enthusiastic about it all.
Larry Hughes, professor of electrical and computer engineering and founding fellow of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Government at Dalhousie University, says that salt caverns have been used for hydrogen storage in Texas by Linde for at least a decade. “With everything being big in Texas, they are also planning the world’s largest hydrogen storage facility,” he adds.
But Hughes cautions that “the site cannot have fissures that will leak the hydrogen,” or it would not be economic.
Hughes reiterates his doubts about figures EverWind Fuels’ Trent Vichie provided to the Halifax Examiner and The Energy Mix in September. At that time, Vichie said EverWind would need only two gigawatt hours (GWhs) from 250 megawatts (MW) of wind for their hydrogen and ammonia production.
Hughes says that calculation is off.
“I (still) hope they’ll get someone in to check their numbers,” he tells the Examiner.
“And if they want to purchase ‘green electricity,’” Hughes adds. “I hope Nova Scotia Power charges a premium for it. If, for no other reason, to purchase a supply of electricity to meet the province’s needs.”
Todd MacDonald is president of Energy Atlantica in Halifax, and he remains skeptical about green hydrogen.
In an interview, MacDonald notes that as recently as April, May, and June this year, nobody had even read about hydrogen in a mainstream newspaper, and yet now there are about three articles a week, and many are led by the green hydrogen proponents.
MacDonald says he’s in the camp of those who see hydrogen as an “economic bubble” inflated by hyperbole.
This is MacDonald’s verdict on the green hydrogen bandwagon:
I do not think this is the rainbows and leprechauns that’s going to solve our energy problem. I think it’s going to take massive amounts of taxpayer subsidies on both sides of the ocean. Germany or somebody in Europe will have to say, “Okay, we’ll commit to paying a really, really expensive price for like 20 years so you can build your project.” And then over here, governments will have to say in addition to that, “We’re willing to subsidize it.” And I don’t think many projects will go forward. I really don’t.