The gas industry paid a lobbying firm more than £200,000 to set up and run a parliamentary group urging ministers to back new fossil fuel projects.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on hydrogen, made up of 17 MPs and Lords, has repeatedly lobbied the government to support "blue hydrogen", which is made from natural gas, and for "hydrogen-ready boilers", which burn natural gas.
Both technologies have been criticised by scientists, who say they are a distraction from proven low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels based on renewable energy.
The current and former chairs of the APPG on hydrogen are Conservative MPs who previously worked for fossil fuel companies that could benefit from the group's lobbying.
Connect PA, a lobbying firm, runs the 'secretariat' of the APPG on hydrogen. Its work is funded mainly by the gas industry, including by gas producers Shell and Equinor, gas network owners Cadent, SGN and Northern Gas Networks, and gas boiler manufacturers Baxi and Bosch.
The parliamentary register of APPGs shows these organisations and others with an interest in hydrogen have paid Connect PA more than £266,000 since 2018 to run the group.
The APPG has published reports that promote its sponsors' work on hydrogen in case studies that appear to be little more than adverts. They include Shell's work on hydrogen for transport, and plans by Bosch, Baxi and SGN for hydrogen heating.
Bosch's case study is written from the company's perspective in the first person, suggesting corporate lobbyists had a significant hand in putting together what purports to be the work of 12 MPs and five peers.
What is an APPG?
APPGs are 'informal' groups of MPs and peers examining topics ranging from coronavirus to jazz. Although some are supported by charities, others are almost entirely run by private lobbying firms, which can act as the groups' secretariats.
Alexander Stafford, who chairs the APPG, worked for Shell before becoming an MP for Rother Valley in 2019.
The House of Commons register of financial interests shows Stafford declared a £5,158 payment from Shell in January 2020 for "providing communications services".
He told openDemocracy he had not worked for Shell "in any capacity whatsoever" since being elected.
Blue hydrogen projects
Shell is working with the firm Uniper on so-called 'blue hydrogen' projects at Killingholme in Lincolnshire and the Isle of Grain in Kent.
The previous chair of the APPG on Hydrogen was Jacob Young, who was employed by an arm of Saudi Aramco - the world's biggest oil company - before he was elected to represent the constituency of Redcar in 2019.
Young declared payments of just over £7,000 from Sabic UK Petrochemicals from December 2019 to April 2020.
Sabic announced in 2021 that it was converting its petrochemical production plant on Teesside to run on blue hydrogen.
Both projects stand to benefit from government plans to support blue hydrogen. Rother Valley and Redcar, the constituencies represented by Stafford and Young respectively, could also benefit from investment in hydrogen projects.
Gas companies claim blue hydrogen will help cut emissions because the carbon produced when making it from gas is captured and stored.
But research has also shown that production of blue hydrogen can be worse for the climate than simply burning gas because it could increase the amount of methane that leaks.
The chair of a hydrogen industry association quit in 2021 saying he could no longer lead it because blue hydrogen schemes were "not sustainable" and "make no sense at all".
Despite these concerns, gas companies are planning 15 blue hydrogen projects in the UK, which would require an amount of gas equivalent to a third of the UK's current consumption, according to analysis of International Energy Agency data by Global Witness, a campaign group.
The government has already adopted several of the APPG on hydrogen's recommendations, including proposing to require all boilers sold from 2026 to be "hydrogen-ready", supporting several blue hydrogen projects, and doubling its target for low-carbon hydrogen production capacity to ten gigawatts by 2030.
If left unchecked, All-Party Parliamantary Groups (APPGs) could represent the next great parliamentary scandal
Parliamentary Standards Committee report 2022
Private firms, including arms manufacturers and tobacco companies, have ploughed £13m of cash and services into APPGs since 2018.
The Parliamentary Standards Committee produced an interim report in May last year, warning that the "dramatic increase" in APPGs in recent years had "created the conditions for inappropriate influence and access". The report added that "if left unchecked, APPGs could represent the next great parliamentary scandal, with commercial entities effectively buying access to and influence of parliamentarians and decision-makers".
Lord Pickles, chair of the government's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, last week raised similar concerns about the proliferation of APPGs and said "we need to take action now before it further develops".
Role of Connect PA
Until this week, Connect PA's website carried a page that boasted: "We have placed hydrogen stories in BBC Radio 4 Today, Sky News, The Economist, The Sun, The Times."
It also described the "establishment of the influential All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hydrogen as being one of our biggest success[es] to date".
Connect PA deleted the page after being asked about it by openDemocracy.
A Connect PA spokesperson said: "Any information on that page, including references to any past work, is at least more than three years old and as no current staff were involved, we are not able to provide further details."
He added: "Connect ensures the APPG operates in an open and transparent way, fully compliant with the strict rules set by the Parliamentary Authorities. MPs and Peers are responsible for the APPG and must approve all activity, including the involvement of outside organisations, and any policy recommendations."
openDemocracy revealed last year that Connect had tried to persuade an MP to establish an APPG on the night-time economy sponsored by the drinks industry.
Blue hydrogen will keep us hooked on fossil fuels and paying high energy bills, as well as dumping carbon into the atmosphere
Dominic Eagleton, Global Witness
Richard Lowes, a research fellow at the University of Exeter who has investigated the extent of gas industry lobbying on hydrogen, said: "The evidence shows that the optimum role for hydrogen is much more limited than the fossil fuel industry would have us believe, and green hydrogen from renewables is the cleanest option. There is a climate emergency, which requires rapid action to remove fossil fuels from our economy and electrify much of our energy use.
"It's increasingly apparent that we should be extremely cautious when taking advice from those interests who have got us into and continue to profit from this mess. And it is some of the same interests who fund the APPG on hydrogen."
Dominic Eagleton, senior campaigner at Global Witness, said "Fossil fuel lobbyists are screaming for governments to subsidise blue hydrogen, claiming it's good for the planet but staying quiet about the real reason, which is to keep their climate-wrecking industry alive.
"Blue hydrogen is greenwash. Now the eye-watering amounts of gas these projects would use is laid bare, it's clear that blue hydrogen will keep us hooked on fossil fuels and paying high energy bills, as well as dumping carbon into the atmosphere. The fact that all of this could be avoided by producing hydrogen from renewable energy instead of gas makes this greenwashing all the more galling."
A Shell spokesperson said: "Large-scale production of hydrogen from renewables is Shell's ultimate goal, but to achieve scale in the timeframe required for hydrogen to make a difference as a net-zero lever, all forms of decarbonised hydrogen are needed. Hydrogen production paired with CCS [carbon capture and storage] will be vital to help build the hydrogen ecosystem, supply chain and infrastructure while still reducing emissions significantly.
"Along with several other organisations, Shell UK is happy to support the work of the APPG on Hydrogen. Companies, NGOs, charities and other organisations all have interactions with APPGs to offer expert views - it's an important part of the democratic process."
Mike Foster, chief executive of the Energy & Utilities Alliance, which includes Bosch, Baxi, Cadent, SGN and Northern Gas Networks among its members, said the APPG for hydrogen enabled consultation on the role of hydrogen "within industry and with MPs as part of a legitimate process".