The United States is leading the world in reducing its emissions of carbon dioxide. And it’s doing so by a wide margin.
Yes, you read that right. The United States – the country that is routinely vilified by the Green/Left for refusing to sign the Kyoto Protocol or impose carbon taxes or institute a cap-and-trade system – is dramatically cutting its production of carbon dioxide. Proof of that has come from both the International Energy Agency in Paris and the Energy Information Administration in Washington.
But you won’t hear about America’s success at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, or the leftist Center for American Progress. That’s because those very same groups are opposing production of the fuel that’s making those reductions possible: natural gas.
Welcome to the strange world of “green” energy politics where fossil fuels – all of them – are vilified because, well, they aren’t wind, and they aren’t solar. Nevertheless, the facts are readily available for anyone who cares to look at them.
On May 24, the IEA reported that US carbon dioxide emissions “have now fallen by 430 million tons (7.7 percent) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.” The reasons for that big reduction, said the IEA were: lower oil use, the economic downturn, “and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector.”
Indeed, thanks to a flood of low-cost natural gas, which is the direct result of the shale revolution, electricity producers throughout the country are shutting down their aging coal plants and replacing them with more efficient natural gas-fired units. And they’re doing so, not because of mandates, taxes, or cap-and-trade schemes, but because of market forces. It’s simply cheaper for them to use gas than it is to burn coal.
That’s reflected in the latest data from the IEA: during the first four months of this year, coal-fired electricity generation in the US fell by 21 percent compared to the same period last year, while gas-fired generation soared by 34 percent.
The result: a steep drop in carbon dioxide emissions. During the first quarter of the year, US carbon dioxide emissions totaled 1.34 billion tons. That’s a reduction of 7.8 percent compared to the first quarter of 2011.
Meanwhile, consider what’s happening in Europe, where the EU’s failed emissions trading scheme has created a perverse incentive: utilities are burning more coal because it’s cheaper for them to buy emissions credits than to use natural gas. On July 3, Bloomberg reported that coal-fired generation in the EU has jumped by more than 3 percent this year while gas-fired electricity production is falling.
In addition, earlier this month, Lawrence M. Cathles, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, published a new study which found that utilizing natural gas to displace coal would be far faster and cheaper than attempting to use nuclear energy and renewables, and better yet, could reduce global carbon emissions by as much as 40 percent.
“The most important message of the calculations reported here is that substituting natural gas for coal and oil is a significant way to reduce greenhouse forcing, regardless of how long the substitution takes,” says the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems. “A faster transition to low-carbon energy sources would decrease greenhouse warming further, but the substitution of natural gas for other fossil fuels is equally beneficial in percentage terms no matter how fast the transition.”
Those facts don’t bother the Sierra Club which claims the “gas industry is dirty, dangerous, and running amok.” It also continues, saying “The closer we look at natural gas, the dirtier it appears…if we can't protect our health and treasured landscapes from the damages caused by the natural gas industry, then we should not drill for natural gas.”
That’s a remarkable set of statements from the Sierra Club, particularly given that the group received some $26 million in donations from the gas industry between 2007 and 2010, most of it from Chesapeake Energy’s embattled CEO, Aubrey McClendon.
During many of those years, the Sierra Club supported natural gas because, as the group’s executive director, Michael Brune, put it earlier this year, the fuel could “play a necessary role in helping us reach the clean energy future our children deserve.”
A similar stance is evident at Greenpeace, which says that natural gas is “a fossil fuel, with some of the same damning negatives as coal and oil…The extraction of natural gas – especially via fracking – is incredibly harmful to the environment and people's health.” The group says it is opposed to hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) because the process is “wreaking havoc on communities all over the country, as well as on our climate.”
Or consider the statements from Joe Romm, a blogger for the Center for American Progress, who regularly attacks anyone who dares stray from his view that the only answer for the global energy future is wind and solar. On March 1, Romm wrote that natural gas was a “bridge fuel to nowhere.” In January, he was even clearer about his antipathy toward the fuel, writing “We don’t want new gas plants to displace new renewables, like solar and wind.”
To be sure, solar and wind energy are growing fast. Over the first four months of the year, generation of electricity from wind grew by 21 percent and solar production was up by 85 percent. Together, solar and wind generated about 52 terawatt-hours of electricity. That’s a lot of juice. But over that same period, natural gas-fired generators produced 371 terawatt-hours, about seven times as much as solar and wind combined.
Of course, it’s true that natural gas drilling takes a toll. Increased drilling activity has led to a backlash against the industry as more drill rigs are deployed in suburban and exurban regions that have never had drilling before.
But the exact same type of backlash can be seen by looking at the wind industry. Rural communities all over the world are fighting large-scale wind projects and the “energy sprawl” that comes with it. The simple truth is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, particularly when it comes to energy production. Furthermore, given the global backlash against the wind business, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the wind industry isn’t so “green” after all.
The punchline here is obvious: the surge in natural gas production is great news for the US, particularly given the flaccid state of the economy.
Over the six-year period from 2003 to 2008, natural-gas prices averaged about $7 per thousand cubic feet. The current spot price for gas is about $2.75. If we assume a price reduction of $4, the shale revolution is now saving American consumers about $264 million per day. In addition, the shale-drilling sector is creating hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs, it’s providing big increases in tax revenues for states and local governments, and it’s a net positive for the environment, particularly when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions. Just don’t expect to hear about it from the Sierra Club.
Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is "Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future."