The good news? CO2 emissions for the US have fallen to levels not seen since 1992.
This is amazing progress and is due to a number of positive steps taken by the US since 2007 when CO2 emissions peaked at 6 billion metric tons per year. Since that time the US has enacted efficiency policies and provided incentives to increase electricity production from wind and solar energy sources. We have added 500,000 barrels per day of biofuels production and we have cut coal use by 20%.
Wind and solar energy installations have multiplied to such an extent that states like Colorado, at times, have seen as much as 50% of electricity production coming from alternative energy sources.
Now for the bad news: the cuts to coal burning in the US, a major factor in lessening US CO2 emissions, have come in large part due to an increase in supply of low-cost natural gas.
It is worth noting that natural gas is far less toxic an energy source than coal. Coal pumps masses of poisons, including mercury into the air and water supply. It also emits two times the level of CO2 when compared to natural gas. Sadly, the result for US coal has been that, though plants have idled here, much of our coal is being shipped overseas to places like China who burn it instead. So what would seem to be a net decrease in carbon emissions is merely a shifting of carbon emissions to another place on the globe.
Natural gas is also still a significant carbon emitter. And the process by which the gas is extracted, increasingly, relies on a fracking technology that pumps extra methane into the atmosphere. Methane is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a global warming source and many studies have shown that volumes coming from fracked wells are significant.
But perhaps most importantly, increasing use of natural gas risks continuing fossil fuel dependence at a time when it is absolutely necessary to begin reducing carbon-based energy use overall.
The International Energy Agency, the world’s premier energy watch-dog, noted:
“Natural gas is not the answer to this problem. Gas-fired plants may emit only half as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour generated than coal-fired plants, but by 2025 the amount emitted will be higher than the average for the entire electric system.”
Natural gas dumped on the US market may have the net effect of crowding out renewable energy sources at the exact moment when it is necessary to rapidly build them. Gas has been labeled the ‘crack cocaine’ of the utility sector. Prices tend to be volatile. During boom times, like now, utilities tend to gobble up all the low cost gas they can find, going on a binge of overbuilding gas generators and neglecting other, more stable, energy sources. Over time, demand increases, drawing up the boom’s slack. Eventually, demand pushes up against supply and prices skyrocket. The result is that utilities are left with a glut of natural gas infrastructure and idle plants as they scramble for other energy sources. And the most readily available substitute for gas happens to be coal, completing the crash phase of a vicious and destructive energy cycle.
This crack-cocaine, high-low effect can have some pretty terrible economic consequences for utilities, especially if they fail to predict the booms and busts.
Some have said that the shale gas boom is different. But, already, new gas supply has leveled off and prices have stabilized. With demand for natural gas still rising, it seems likely that costs will rise over the next few years. The potential exception is that enough renewable energy infrastructure could displace the need for natural gas, continuing to push prices down.
And this brings us to a serious problem. If we are to adequately address the issue of climate change we must have mechanisms in place that prevent low-cost fossil fuels from flooding the market and increasing CO2 emissions. To this point, despite the fact that US CO2 emissions have fallen, world CO2 emissions keep rising every year. A shift to natural gas in the US will only serve to increase the overall world production of CO2. So policy measures that increase the cost of carbon, to reflect its damage to the climate, will need to be put in place lest we rapidly find ourselves in a situation we can’t back out of.
Boom and bust natural gas, for this very reason, is a false path to reducing CO2 long-term. It results in net increases in emissions and continued dependence on the very fossil fuels we need to ween ourselves from. And it threatens to undermine the more stable and economically viable long-term energy sources like wind and solar.