Natural Gas Increases are Diminishing Carbon Emissions

Ken Silverstein | Aug 06, 2012


U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are falling. Why? New data by a governmental branch is saying that the switch from coal to unconventional forms of natural gas is the main reason, followed by an unusually warm 2012 winter.

Coal-fired power, in fact, used to provide about half of the electric generation market, and it is now 34 percent. At the same time, natural gas from shale is rising, providing almost as much fuel for utilities as coal -- but certainly trending higher. The result is fewer carbon dioxide emissions, notably less than in previous years, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Amid historically low natural gas prices and the warmest March ever recorded in much of the United States, coal's share of total net generation dropped to 34 percent — the lowest level since at least January 1973,” says the agency. “Despite seasonally low loads, natural gas-fired generation grew markedly and accounted for 30 percent of overall net generation by March 2012. Total electricity demand fell this winter as warmer weather reduced home heating requirements.”

The research goes on to say that modern combined-cycle natural gas generation results in the more efficient production of electricity. That has contributed to fewer heat-trapping emissions, along with the fact that natural gas has fewer pollutants tied to it than does coal. The report also says that about 90 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with energy production is from burning coal.

Altogether, the Energy Information Administration is reporting that carbon dioxide emissions are 2.4 percent less in 2011 than they were in 2010. They are also 9.1 percent less than in 2007.

True, years of economic lag have meant that commercial and industrial enterprises are demanding less energy. But now those financial prospects and numbers are starting to tick up. The decline in carbon is therefore tied more to fuel switching than anything else. It’s also associated with higher oil prices, causing people to drive less -- something that may also lead to more alternatively-fueled vehicles. 

The implications: Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production. By 2035, natural gas, generally, will make up about 45 percent of the utility generation market, says the Energy Information Administration.

With the new abundance and lower prices, lower-carbon gas seems likely to play a much larger role in the generation of electric power,” writes Daniel Yergin, in his book “The Quest.”

Global Emissions

Certainly, green energy has its place. But if environmentalists are concerned about rising greenhouse gas emissions, why not welcome shale gas development and promote better and safer hydraulic fracturing? That’s the controversial method by which producers ply loose the shale gas from the rocks where it is embedded -- blamed by some for polluting drinking water supplies.

Some green groups do see natural gas as a bridge to the future that will rely on renewable energy. Others, however, say that supply levels are finite and that the atmosphere cannot absorb many more greenhouse gas emissions, urging instead a faster shift to sustainable energies. 

To that end, the global community’s carbon dioxide emissions are rising -- up about 48 percent since 1992, says the International Energy Agency in Paris. It adds that such releases are 6.7 percent greater than 2010.

But does this not underscore the need for burning fuels that produce less toxins than coal? Global proven reserves of shale gas are estimated to be at 6,600 trillion cubic feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

China and the United States have the most supplies at 1,275 and 862 trillion cubic feet, respectively. The other countries sitting atop huge swaths of shale gas are Argentina, Mexico, South Africa and Australia. And while France has such potential, the regulatory environment there is unfriendly to developers.

“There is no one magic bullet. There is no one technology you need, because the world is different in different places ... You’ve got to do a real cradle to grave analysis,” says Deputy Executive Director Richard H. Jones, in a story on the international agency’s web site.

Carbon dioxide emissions are declining in this country. That is mostly a function of using a lot more natural gas, which happens to be relatively cheap and clean when compared to the alternatives. If the world community can come to terms with how shale gas is produced and then share the best-available technologies, global heat trapping emissions may also eventually start falling.  

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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Natural Gas Increases are Diminishing Carbon Emissions

So many thoughtful words written about a subject that has no relevance. In Science one learns that starting with a false premise anything can be proved. Since there is no real evidence that carbon dioxide emissions have anything to do with global warming, all the furor to reduce these emissions amounts to much ado about nothing.

Get real and look at gobal climate change throughout history and you will find cold and warm periods that happened without any man-produced carbon dioxide. It's called "the natural cycles of the earth" and has been going on since recorded history and will continue to go on no matter what we do. To think otherwise is to greatly exaggerate the influence miniscule beings have on a rather large planet.

Stop wasting energy and time pontificating about something that really doesn't matter.

but gas price can be very big up and downs,

the price of any fossil fuels are very volitel, so the better decision should be together with some stable sources of energy form, like nuclear.

and I do think gas is an intermiddent to something else, like H2. but how many years of that will last, it is still unknow.

And Enron was profitable, until the whole story was told

Yes, Natural Gas is cleaner than Coal!  Until the whole story is told.  You see (and you know this, but left it out.  I wonder why?) methane, 99% of what Natural Gas is, is 72 times more warming than co2 is.  True, it stays in the atmosphere 20 years, much less than co2.  But the fate of the next 200 billion kids, the next 2000 generations will be decided in the next 2 or three years.  Beyond 20 years is irrelevant.  And as you know (why didn't you tell us this) there is a massive amount of seepage of natural gas particularly in the extraction, but well beyond as well.  So much so that according to a widely acclaimed study from Cornell University earlier this year, natural gas is NOT less warming than coal - just as dirty, when the whole story is told.  This kind of misinformation bankrupt millions, or so, with Enron.  It will totally destroy the lives of 10's of billions, unless the Truth is told.  You're ok with destroying that many lives?

Bridge to the Future

Natural gas can only be a "bridge" to the future if the "bridge" is long enough to permit recovery of the incremental investment in new pipeline plus a return on that investment, typically 40 years. Otherwise, the "bridge" will not be built because the investment capital will not be made available.


I recently ran some figures for the last decade using US EIA generation data.  I plotted the decrease in CO2 emissions as a percentage versus the increases in natural gas fueled generation and the increases in what EIA listed as "Other Renewables" which are dominated by wind and solar.  Hydro was listed separately and EIA seems to consider it a renewable--however, I think the innudated trees, brushlands, grasslands, and animal habitat disqualify hydro as green energy.  Regardless, hydro and nuclear did not have significant change to them.  I also plotted the decrease in coal-fired generation as a percentage.  Please note that because I plotted decreases for CO2/MWh and coal fired power, the slopes will be positive rather than negative.  I did this to see directly how the curves compared.

The increase in natural gas fueled generation (% of MWh not MW) very closely matched the curve for decrease in CO2/MWh.  The decrease in coal fired generation did not quite match up with the decrease in CO2/MWh.  The curve for increase in "other renewables" came nowhere close to matching the CO2/MWh curve.

The conclusion I reached is that the primary driver for the decrease in CO2/MWh emissions is primarily and very dominantly a function of increases in the proportion of power generation utilizing natural gas whereas the impacts of wind and solar are minimal at best.

We need to quit throwing away taxpayer and ratepayer money on PTCs, cash grants, and RPSs and concentrate on building new GTCC facilities and new ultra-supercritical coal facilities to replace older, conventional coal facilities and gas fired boiler facilities (one should never burn natural gas in a boiler--it is a waste of a prime fuel to do so).  By concentrating on more efficient power generation, we can immediately and effectively knock a huge chunk off CO2/MWh emissions while providing reliable, dispatchable power--something neither wind nor solar can do.  Neither wind nor solar contribute to the amount of employment natural gas, coal, nuclear, or hydro do.  This lack of wider employment and procurement activity adversely impacts income tax revenues, sales tax revenues, and property tax revenues for all levels of government.

Mark Wooldridge