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Natural Gas and the Climate Debate

Here is an excellent article by Michael Levy, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations: “Fracking and the Climate Debate,” published in the journal Democracy. A well-reasoned and balanced summary of the debates over the role of natural gas in our energy future and its potential impact on our climate. Lengthy, but well worth reading.

Levy gives a good history of recent remarkable changes in the roles of coal and natural gas in US energy:

Between 1999 and 2005, the United States had added the equivalent of 200 nuclear power plants’ worth of natural gas-fueled electricity plants, even as U.S. coal-fired capacity actually fell. But by 2007, with natural gas prices rising, the U.S. government predicted a reversal: Over the next two decades, coal-fired power plants would be built at a furious pace, while natural gas would stagnate. This would be disastrous for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: By 2030, it was predicted, the fleet of coal-fired power plants would belch three billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, massively raising U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. …

But the EIA’s predictions were proven false by the shale gas revolution:

Between 2005 and 2014, annual U.S. natural gas production increased by 36 percent, with shale gas production rising even more than total U.S. natural gas output did (other sources of U.S. gas continued to decline). In large part as a result, from 2008 to 2012, the price of natural gas dropped by a whopping 62 percent. Since the dawn of electric power, coal has been the largest source of U.S. electricity, with natural gas coming in a distant second beginning around 1960. But by April 2012, with natural gas prices at rock bottom, gas-fired power came within a hair of topping coal.

American carbon dioxide emissions simultaneously plummeted. U.S. emissions had risen nearly every year for decades, and few expected the pattern to change. But in 2007, emissions peaked. By 2012, U.S. emissions were 13 percent below their 2007 high, and at their lowest level since 1994. Emissions rebounded slightly through 2014 but remained 9 percent below their high-water mark. …

In 2014, coal provided 39 percent of total U.S. electricity to natural gas’s 27 percent. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an independent agency of the U.S. government, projects that without new policies, it will take until 2035 for natural gas to pass coal as the top source of U.S. electricity. It also projects that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, instead of decreasing, will edge up by nearly 2 percent over the next decade.

The New York Times reported yesterday that, in fact,

Natural gas overtook coal as the top source of United States electric power generation for the first time ever this spring, a milestone that has been in the making for years as the price of gas slides and new regulations make coal riskier for power generators. About 31 percent of electric power generation in April came from natural gas, and 30 percent from coal, according to a recently released report from the research company SNL Energy, which used data from the Energy Department. Nuclear power came in third at 20 percent. A drilling boom that started in 2008 has increased United States natural gas production by 30 percent and made the United States the world’s biggest combined producer of oil and natural gas. Federal data shows that in April, the amount of electricity generated with natural gas climbed 21 percent compared with April 2014, and the amount generated with coal fell 19 percent. In April 2010, 44 percent of electric power generation came from coal and 22 percent from gas, according to SNL Energy.

This is a remarkable statistic: In April 2015, US generation of electricity from gas increased 21%, and electricity from coal fell 19%.

The debate over fracking will continue, but the world’s insatiable appetite for energy will not abate, and natural gas will continue to increase as a share of our energy supply. The industry would do well to consider Levy’s caution that it act responsibly by reducing emissions and pay attention to the environmental impacts caused by its activities.

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