CO2 emissions drop, but natural gas won’t save us

September 18, 2012

Last month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported a drop in U.S. carbon emissions to a 20 year low, basically matching the carbon emissions of 1992. The media’s coverage of this report was brief and rather one-sided. Here are a few representative samples:

Kevin Begos from the Associated Press:

Many of the world’s leading climate scientists didn’t see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action against carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.

While conservation efforts, the lagging economy and greater use of renewable energy are factors in the CO2 decline, the drop-off is due mainly to low-priced natural gas, the agency said.

How much further the shift from coal to natural gas can go is unclear. Bentek says that power companies plan to retire 175 coal-fired plants over the next five years. That could bring coal’s CO2 emissions down to 1980 levels. However, the EIA predicts prices of natural gas will start to rise a bit next year, and then more about eight years from now.

So in Begos’ view, market forces and the advances in natural gas extraction are responsible for the significant reduction in carbon emissions. His selection of quotes from climate scientists and experts paint a picture of a cleaner, brighter future thanks to natural gas based energy.

Rachel Nuwer in an Op-Ed for the New York Times:

Although natural gas is a more efficient fossil fuel than coal, burning it still produces carbon dioxide emissions. One of its strengths lies in that it produces more kilowatts of power than the equivalent amount of coal and it provides more energy for each carbon dioxide molecule emitted into the atmosphere. This so-called carbon efficiency is one of the key equations that scientists use to project carbon dioxide emissions, with more efficient energy sources contributing less to global warming than the more inefficient emitters.

While better than Begos’ article, Nuwer’s brief op-ed lacks any discussion of the significance of the drop in CO2.

Kevin Doram and Adam Reed for environment360:

The recent and staggering abundance of natural gas is, ostensibly, a very good thing. Provided that current low natural gas prices persist and that resource estimates hold true, natural gas combined cycle power plants will gradually replace our nation’s aging coal-fired generation fleet. Our electricity will become cleaner, cheaper, and more efficient, and the superior ability of natural gas combined cycle turbines to ramp up quickly will allow easier grid integration of variable energy sources like wind and solar power.

The U.S. now faces a choice: We can rush into a monolithic energy future dominated by natural gas, or we can leverage the gift of cheap and abundant natural gas to create an energy system that is profitable, affordable, and more sustainable over the long run.

This opinion-piece published on environment360 portrays natural gas as a potentially suitable bridge-technology until proper renewable energy sources are fully developed and able to carry most of the weight of energy consumption. At the same time it admits that at this point in time the development of natural gas hinders the establishment of sustainable energy sources. And it also recognizes the difficulties and environmental problems associated with the extraction of natural gas, namely, hydro-fracturing or “fracking”.

Some additional thoughts on the drop in CO2 emissions and the move toward natural gas:

1. Greenhouse gas emissions and the free market

A new teenager moves to a small town and for a number of reasons the local bully decides to make him his new target. Consequently the former victims notice a significant drop in bullying-incidents. The local newspaper, unaware of the new situation is told about the significant drop and goes on to present the drop as an example of how teenagers are able to solve their problems on their own.

Portraying the recent drop in CO2 emissions as a result of market forces is equally misleading. What drove down the emissions was the extensive governmental subsidies for gas-drilling. For more on market-based solutions to fight climate change, see Carbon Trading – How it works and why it fails.

2. Natural Gas extraction: Environmental risks and methane leaks  

The media coverage barely touched on the issues of natural gas leakage and the consequences fracking on the environment and people living close by.

Though there is a certain dispute about the average amount of natural gas leakage (pro: Robert W. Howarth, Jeff Tollefson contra: L.M. Cathles) both parties basically acknowledge the following numbers game: Natural gas, when burned, possesses about 50% of coal’s carbon footprint. However, if released into the air without being burned, natural gas itself acts as a green-house gas about 75 times more potent than C02. Taking this into consideration, even the slightest leakage of natural gas (less than 2%) would suffice to nullify any reduction in carbon emissions.

The recent documentary called Gasland showcases the situation people have to face if fracking is done close to their homes. Here is the extended trailer:

The claims made in this documentary have been attacked by Energy-In- Depth and other gas-industry groups,  according to the producers of this film. This in turn has prompted the filmmakers to issue an open response, addressing these critiques and rebutting claims and accusations with facts and evidence.

3. Carbon emission and growth based economy

Finally, the most important point to remember: Even if there was no direct environmental risks to natural gas and no leakage, the most we would achieve by replacing coal-based energy with natural gas is to buy a little bit of time. As Tim Jackson has pointed out, as long as economies need economic growth to remain stable, the long-term perspective renders any technological advances irrelevant in the fight against climate change. Jackson explains this very well in the following TED talk.


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