MP's Methil Madness

Article by Tom Baxter CEng FIChemE

Scottish Parliament needs MPs with science backgrounds, and input from a balance of experts, says Tom Baxter

I HAD an absolutely appalling experience recently watching MPs without a background in science and engineering, asking questions of expert engineers. If you were there, fellow engineering reader, I suspect you would have been as disheartened by the poor quality of the questions asked and the lack of challenge to the expert witness responses.

I have written a number of articles for TCE and others expressing my concerns about  the evidence-weak nature that accompanies much of the promotion of hydrogen for energy applications. I am one of the co-founders of the Hydrogen Science Coalition (HSC), which was  set up to bring evidence into the hydrogen debate. On behalf of the HSC, I provided written evidence (HSC0004) to the Scottish Affairs Committee (SAC) on our view that Scotland has a wrong-headed  hydrogen strategy. In short, we are concerned that hydrogen blending is a waste, that blue hydrogen should not be part of the net zero pathway and that using hydrogen for heat and power should not be used until current polluting grey hydrogen is displaced by low carbon hydrogen. 

Evidence session

An alert from the SAC informed me that there would be a public evidence session on 16 May in Methil, Fife, Scotland.

Methil will represent Scotland’s first domestic trial of 100% hydrogen for heating and cooking, known as H100. I applied to attend as a member of the public and duly turned up on the day.

The committee consisted of five Scottish MPs, only one of whom had STEM training – agricultural college. The others were a lawyer, two English graduates, and a former musician.

The expert witnesses were the Director for Energy Futures from Scotia Gas Networks (SGN), which is managing the Methil H100 project, and a Senior Strategy Manager from the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.

I watched with growing frustration at the basic questions posed to the experts by the MPs (you can watch the recording here). It was clear that none of them had a technical understanding of the issues around hydrogen for domestic use. The questions were easily answered by the expert witnesses and the MPs had no background to challenge the answers given. Of particular note was the superficial response to safety, and that no MP asked what the retail cost of hydrogen would be if it is rolled out countrywide.

Box ticking?

To my mind the session was a sham, it achieved nothing other than a political tick in the box that a public evidence session had taken place.

I was disgusted at what I witnessed. So much so that at the end of the session I asked if a member of the public and a potential hydrogen user could ask a question. After all it was a public evidence session.

I was immediately put down by the Chair who said this was not the place for the public to ask questions. I protested, with the upshot being that I was told to leave the meeting.

I was met at the door by two policemen who escorted me to the foyer. Following an offline discussion with the SGN representative I was told by the police to leave the building. An appalling experience.

On reflection what should have I expected of the MPs? Their non scientific background meant they did not have the skillsets to ask difficult questions or challenge the answers. It’s not their fault.

In my opinion what is at fault is the political system that allows such a pretence at due diligence to take place.

How can this situation be changed? Well clearly, more STEM-trained MPs would be a good starting point. Or have the MPs witness a session where experts challenge the "defence" witnesses. That would be a very useful role for the Royal Academy of Engineers

I have little hope that either will happen.

I do though hope that the HSC is called as witness to a future public evidence session. That should let the MPs hear the other side of the pro-hydrogen, evidence-weak narrative they were exposed to at the Methil session.

Article by Tom Baxter CEng FIChemE

Retired Senior Lecturer at Aberdeen University, Visiting Professor of Chemical Engineering at Strathclyde University, and retired Technical Director, Genesis Oil and Gas Consultants

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