U.S. Carbon Emissions at Lowest Levels in 20 Years, Thanks to Natural Gas and Fracking
“U.S. carbon emissions in surprise reduction,” read one headline. “Historic Drop In U.S. Carbon Emissions,” said another. “U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in early 2012 lowest since 1992,” blared a third.
How did this happen? None of President Barack Obama’s proposals to cut emissions made it through Congress. The United States didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Now the U.S. is reducing carbon emissions so fast that it seems to have hit broadside. What in the name of Al Gore is going on?
Three words: natural gas fracking. Actually, also these three words: free market forces.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Adminstration (EIA), U.S. carbon dioxide emissions resulting from energy use during the first quarter of 2012 were the lowest in two decades for any January-March period.
Making an analogy to weight loss, noted climate-change blogger Joseph Romm wrote on the Energy Collective website, “Carbon emissions from the energy sector are at the lowest level they’ve ever been for the last 20 years. Seen from a narrow weight loss perspective, that’s a really good thing.”
The International Energy Agency said no country in the world from 2005 to today has cut its carbon dioxide emissions more than the U.S. — from 6 billion metric tons in 2007 to projections of 5.2 billion metric tons for this year — roughly equal to 1990 levels. Take that, Kyoto treaty. For comparison’s sake, China emitted about 9 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2011 — 29 percent of the global total, according to Associated Press (AP) reporting.
The drop in energy-related carbon emissions happened during a time period where emissions are historically highest “because of strong demand for heat produced by fossil fuels,” as the EIA says. But this past winter wasn’t exactly the coldest on record, so there wasn’t as much need for home heating.
But the more long-term signal of genuine change in CO2 emissions is, quite simply, how cheap relatively clean-burning natural gas has become. When natural gas is cheap, we use it as an energy-generation source instead of burning pricier and dirtier coal.
Coal is the most carbon-intense fuel used to generate electrical power, and about 90 percent of the energy-related CO2 emissions from coal come from the electrical power sector, according to the EIA, so when less electricity generation comes from coal, CO2 emissions reflectively drop. In 2005, coal accounted for roughly 50 percent of America’s electricity generation; in 2011 it was about 40 percent.
Indeed, as the EIA notes, CO2 emissions from coal were down 18 percent, to 387 million metric tons in the January-to-March 2012 period, and overall consumption of coal was down 20 percent compared with Q1 2011: “That was the lowest first-quarter CO2 emissions from coal since 1983 and the lowest for any quarter since April-June 1986.” And, in fact, the International Energy Agency has famously remarked that we’re in the “golden age” of natural gas.
So hallelujah for natural gas. But not so fast, some say.
Romm, writing for The Energy Collective, sees lower CO2 emissions as a glass-half-empty situation: Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It is the cleanest fossil fuel in existence, yes, but it still contributes some CO2 emissions. While greater natural-gas use is cause for moderate rejoicing, since it is less carbon-intense than coal, Romm won’t be happy until a perfectly CO2-free energy source is found. (Don’t mention nuclear energy, of course. Haven’t you seen The China Syndrome?)
A little over a year ago, on ThinkProgress, clean energy journalist Stephen Lacey noted, “The glut of gas on the market due to the ‘shale gas revolution’ has kept prices low, making it difficult for renewable energy developers to compete on in the merchant market (i.e. spot market.).”
That means there is no real point in investing in solar or wind power now, since natural gas is so cheap and relatively clean.
If natural gas wasn’t in the equation, a stronger case can be made for solar and wind energy and other renewables against coal. Competing against natural gas, though, Romm veers into wild-eyed zealot territory. Writing on ThinkProgress, Lacey also displays a zealot streak. He concludes his article with “the habit the world must kick is CO2 emissions.”
Romm, though, makes a good point about the fact that no one really knows exactly the amount of natural gas the world has, and unexpected supply shortages would certainly drive up prices. He overstates the case, however; nobody thinks natural gas supplies will falter in the foreseeable future either.
And that’s mainly due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking: high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to blast through rock and release gas and oil. How effective has fracking been at bringing us more affordable energy? AP recently reported that shale gas drilling in the Northeast’s Marcellus Shale and in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana has caused the wholesale price of natural gas to plummet from $7 or $8 per unit to about $3 over the past four years. That’s fracked gas, folks.
Agence France-Presse has noted that the supply of natural gas has soared due to fracking.
Writing for Discovery News, Tim Wall quotes Roger Pielke Jr., a climate expert at the University of Colorado, “There’s a very clear lesson here. What it shows is that if you make a cleaner energy source cheaper, you will displace dirtier sources.”
Pielke has said elsewhere, too, that natural gas alone is not the answer to our energy needs. He’s right. But he agrees that with natural gas being so inexpensive and easy to obtain now, the same economic forces that are squeezing coal out of the energy market are putting the hurt on renewable energy production, as well.
Wall cites Kevin Doran and Adam Reed of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, a joint institute of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Colorado, as saying in Yale Environment360, “The natural gas boom also presents the prospect of imminent harm to the deployment of renewable energy … the growing swell toward a utility sector dominated by natural gas has already resulted in collateral damage throughout the renewables industry.”
And concerns about fracking remain. Some claim that it causes man-made earthquakes. Some say it is possible that groundwater supplies are being contaminated by the materials used in fracking, as Wall notes.
However, right now it is hard to argue that natural gas is an energy source that is cheaper and cleaner than what we have been mostly using. Look for CO2 emissions to keeping going down as the debate over natural gas continues to heat up.