A peer-reviewed scientific journal has begun investigating a study it recently published on the use of hydrogen as a heating fuel in Massachusetts, citing a Globe investigation that found the authors failed to disclose gas industry funding and the role of a lobbyist aligned with the industry.
A research integrity specialist for the journal Frontiers in Energy Research, which published the study in September, said in an e-mail that the Globe’s account led the journal to open its “own internal investigation into the aforementioned manuscript to assess the situation and establish the facts of the matter.”
If the investigation finds conflicts that call into question the study’s findings, it could lead to a retraction.
The study, by scientists at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, endorsed the use of so-called green hydrogen for heating buildings in Massachusetts and recommended the state consider adopting hydrogen as a clean fuel. The American Gas Association and gas interests in Massachusetts have been promoting hydrogen as a climate-friendly alternative to carbon-emitting gas. Adopting such a plan on a large scale would allow gas utilities to continue operating and profiting much as they do now but with a different fuel.
But many scientists say using green hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas — or mixing it with natural gas or other fuels, as the gas industry has also proposed — isn’t feasible for reasons that include high cost, safety risks, and hydrogen’s potential to harm the climate. What’s more, they say, continuing to push green hydrogen as a climate-friendly option could delay progress on more realistic climate solutions.
The Globe’s investigation found that while the study listed several authors from UMass Lowell, it did not acknowledge the role a gas industry-aligned lobbyist played in helping draft the conclusions and recommendations. Meanwhile, the study said its funding came from a foundation run by the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a trade organization, but did not disclose that funds were solicited directly from AIM members who are in the natural gas and pipeline industries.
The study was published in the journal with a declaration from the authors that “the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.”
The journal’s investigation was applauded by several scientists.
“This is the appropriate action for the journal to take,” said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University who has published research on hydrogen and who has been editor in chief of three scientific journals. “They need to see if things were done incorrectly or wrongly.”
It is unclear how long the investigation will take, but Howarth noted the possible outcomes are that the article will be cleared of any wrongdoing; that the journal will publish a revised version with different disclosures, noting the controversy; or — more drastically — that it could be retracted.
Regina LaRocque, an infectious disease physician and researcher at Harvard Medical School who is also a climate activist, said she began contacting the journal with concerns about the study shortly after its publication.
“If the journal doesn’t take this kind of thing seriously, it’s a problem for the whole research endeavor,” she said. “In our world of academics, we rely on people being honest brokers of their work, both the funding and the writing of it. Our entire ecosystem of science depends on the integrity of the people doing it.”
Ivan Oransky, cofounder of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific misconduct, said the quality of investigations by journals into allegations of malfeasance can vary — but being in the public eye helps. “Public scrutiny seems to be linked to a greater likelihood of investigation and a greater likelihood of an outcome of some significance,” he said.
Julie Chen, who was named chancellor of UMass Lowell this summer, wrote in an e-mail, “Our research office will review any conclusions [the journal] editors share.” She noted that following an initial inquiry from the Globe about the study, the university’s Offices of Research Administration and Research Integrity had looked into it and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
The revelations about the role that the gas industry played in the study came to light after the utility watchdog group Energy and Policy Institute shared with the Globe e-mail correspondence it had obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The correspondence included communications among the study’s authors and others, including the lobbyist, as well as evolving drafts of the study.
Itai Vardi, research and communications manager with the Energy and Policy Institute, said he’s hoping to see the study updated with full disclosure, at the very least. “I am concerned that if no action is taken, then industry and other interested stakeholders will make use of this paper as a resource, despite it being faulty and despite not having its complete funding and ghost writing made public,” he said.
The significance of the study extends beyond academia. In Massachusetts, the natural gas utilities have presented green hydrogen — along with so-called renewable natural gas, or biogas, which is largely made of methane — as a strategy for helping the state get to net zero while allowing customers to have options about how they heat their homes.
“Customer choice is essential,” said Eversource spokesperson Caroline Pretyman. “We at Eversource have never suggested biogas as the only solution, but rather one of the many innovative technologies that must be considered as we work together toward a clean energy future.”
Judith Judson, head of US strategy and hydrogen for National Grid, said it can also save consumers money.
“In order to electrify everything, that means every single resident or business needs to change out their heating equipment, and to replace it with different heating equipment,” she said. “If there is an option for customers to get clean energy without having to do that, we want to support that. That’s where alternative fuels can come into play.”
But critics say the utilities are overlooking two main flaws: harm to the climate and lack of supply.
Both hydrogen and renewable natural gas could perpetuate climate warming if they ran through pipe networks, which have been shown to leak, according to peer-reviewed studies published in the journal One Earth and Environmental Research Letters. For instance, when renewable natural gas leaks, the emissions are the same as with natural gas: methane is 80 times more planet-warming than carbon in the short term, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And recent studies have found that hydrogen causes a reaction in the atmosphere that contributes to global warming.
Beyond that, many experts say there simply isn’t enough of either gas available to feasibly heat homes.
A report by National Grid found there is ample renewable natural gas in the Eastern United States, but Ben Butterworth, the director of climate, energy and equity analysis at the clean energy advocacy organization Acadia Center, said he has not seen any independent research supporting that conclusion. Studies including a 2021 Princeton report called “Net Zero America” have found that similar supply issues face green hydrogen, because producing it at scale requires so much wind or solar power.
“It makes absolutely no sense that we would be talking about using this for residential and commercial uses,” he said.