Jul 31

U. S. Carbon Emissions Decline Due to Increased Use of Natural Gas

Author :
Ed Ireland

The United States Energy Information Agency (EIA) released its “Annual Energy Outlook 2012” on January 23, 2012. The annual report shows that emissions of carbon dioxide in the U.S. are now lower than levels in the year 2000 and are predicted to continue to decline through the year 2035 (which is the extent of the study projection).

What caused this decline? It wasn’t stringent worldwide carbon reduction agreements. And, new carbon reduction regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t bring about the change. In fact, carbon regulations had nothing to do with it—but natural gas did. The primary reason for the continued decline in carbon emissions is the increasing number of natural gas-fired electricity generating plants, thanks to the shale gas discoveries in the United States.

The EIA first took notice of the contribution that natural gas was making to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in their May 2010 report entitled “U. S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions in 2009: A Retrospective Review”, in which the organization noted: “The 4-percent drop in the carbon intensity of the electric power sector, the largest in recent times, reflects a large increase in the use of lower-carbon natural gas because of an almost 50-percent decline in its price.”

These statistics tell the story:

U.S. power plants are now producing 64% more power from natural gas than was produced in 2000.
Natural gas powered electric plants emit 40% less carbon dioxide than coal powered plants.
Natural gas power emits 20% of the carbon monoxide of coal power, 20% of the nitrogen oxides or NOx (an ozone precursor) and less than 1% of the sulfur dioxide, particulates and mercury of coal power.

So, thanks to the free market, private companies have developed the means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is in spite of the myriad of regulations that limit and/or stop natural gas development in the United States, and the anti-frac’ing activists that continue to stop the development of domestic shale gas.

The importance of shale gas, as mentioned in the EIA energy outlook, is staggering. The EIA expects shale gas to increase from its current 23% of domestic natural gas production to 49% in the next 22 years. And, remember that shale gas was virtually non-existent just 10 years ago when the Barnett Shale was just starting to be developed.

All this said, the 100-year supply of natural gas that is currently projected changes the fuel mix for electricity generation in this country. By 2035, the EIA projects that the share of natural gas that contributes to electric power generation will increase from currently 24% to 27%, while reliance on coal-fired plants declines from 49% seen in 2007 to 39% over the same period. The contribution of renewable energy also increases from 10% to 16%.

The result is lower carbon dioxide levels in 2035 than we had in previous years. The EIA notes that carbon dioxide emissions will grow an estimated 3% to a total of 5,806 million metric tons in 2035, which leaves them more than 7% below the 2005 total. The EIA also notes that emissions per capita fall by an average of 1% per year from 2005 to 2035.

In his 2012 State of the Union speech, President Obama recognized the importance of shale gas in the United States:

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”

In the discussion of what is valuable to our country, natural gas continues to be a topic of interest—and for good reason. The contribution that natural gas has made, and will continue to make for decades, to lower levels of carbon dioxide should be welcome news for Texans living in the Barnett Shale and all Americans alike.