Four Big Problems with a New Report Attributing CO2 Reductions to Bad Economy Rather than Natural Gas

A new report published in Nature claims that the bulk of the credit for the 11 percent drop in CO2 emissions between 2007 and 2013 should go to the Great Recession rather than increased use of natural gas by electrical power plants.  Of course, just about every credible organization has stated the exact opposite, acknowledging shale gas’ huge contribution to CO2 emission reductions.

And that blanket dismissal of the scientific consensus is just one of several problems with the report.  Here are the four issues that stick out the most.

Problem #1: Report suggests that experts are all wrong about natural gas

The report claims,

“After 2007, decreasing emissions were largely a result of economic recession with changes in   fuel mix (for example, substitution of natural gas for coal) playing a comparatively minor role.”

That’s not what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been has been described by prominent environmental organizations as the “gold standard” for understanding climate change, has concluded. In its latest assessment, which was the product of the opinion of 1,250 international experts, the IPCC noted,

“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”

In addition the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Energy Information Administration (EIA) have all recognized this obvious correlation and have acknowledged natural gas’ major contribution to carbon reduction.

  • According to the EIA, “There are two basic factors that have contributed to lower carbon intensity (CO2/kilowatthour [kWh]) in the electric power sector: 1) substitution of the less-carbon-intensive natural gas for coal and petroleum, and 2) growth in non-carbon generation, especially renewables such as wind and solar.
  • EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has said: “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change.”
  • Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has said: “About half of that progress we have made [on greenhouse gas emissions] is from the natural-gas boom.”

Electrical power generation is the No. 1 source of CO2 emissions in the U.S., accounting for 37 percent of total carbon emissions.
But U.S. CO2 emissions are lowest they’ve been in at least 20 years. Not coincidently, natural gas is now the top source of U.S. electrical power generation.

The Nature report does concede the latest National Climate Assessment of the United States Global Change Research Program states that the decrease in U.S. CO2 emissions was “… largely due to a shift from coal to less CO2-intensive natural gas for electricity production.

“After decades of increases, U.S. CO2 emissions from energy use (which account for 97% of total U.S. emissions) declined by around 9% between 2008 and 2012, largely due to a shift … to less CO2-intensive natural gas for electricity production.” (p. 13)

Yet they still claim natural gas only played a minor role.  

Problem #2: Data from 2011-2012 doesn’t fit the researchers’ narrative and data from 2013-2015 excluded

The researchers state they analyzed six CO2 emission factors to reach their conclusion: population growth, consumption volume of goods and services, shifts in consumption patterns, adjustment in production structure for U.S. goods and services, changes in fuel mix and changes in energy intensity.

Based on analysis of those six contributors CO2 emissions, the report claims that 83 percent of the CO2 emission decrease from 2007-2009 was due to economic factors such as decreased consumption and decrease of energy intensity in the manufacturing, transport and service sectors, while just 17 percent of the decrease in CO2 emissions could be attributed to increased use of natural gas.

“… changes in the U.S. fuel mix from 2007 to 2009 alone would not have caused a decrease in U.S. emissions. … The large decrease (9.9 percent) in U.S. CO2 emissions between 2007 and 2009 was primarily the result of the economic recession.”

This assessment is more than a little ironic considering all major national environmental groups – including the Sierra Club – were touting natural gas as a bridge fuel during that 2007-2009 timeframe. But now that natural gas is affordable and in abundant supply thanks to fracking, the movement has done an about-face and is pushing reports like this in an attempt to marginalize the significant role natural gas has played in recent CO2 emission reductions.

But the researchers’ “economic growth = higher CO2 emissions” narrative hits a real snag when evaluating 2011-2013 data. Though they admit that the shale gas revolution had taken hold by then and was a contributing factor to reductions in CO2 emissions, they emphasize the reductions were small relative to reductions from 2007-2009 – just a 2.1 percent decrease by their estimates – due to economic growth factors.

But EIA data indicates carbon-related emissions dropped nearly twice that much in 2012 specifically, 3.8 percent. That year just happened to see the biggest spike in natural gas use for electrical generation in study period’s six-year range, increasing more than 200,000 more megawatt hours more than 2011. That could explain why there was such a significant decline in CO2 emissions in the same timeframe that saw energy intensity uptick slightly and consumption volume remain relatively unchanged. The researchers argue economic factors are bigger drivers of CO2 reductions than increased natural gas use, but the statistics for 2011-2012 don’t fit their narrative.

Their range of analysis also does not extend into 2014 and 2015, which is interesting considering all indications point to the fact that CO2 emissions continue to drop at the same time that the economy continues to recover, which also goes completely against their narrative.

A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) report stated that 2015 is on pace to have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in more than 60 years, prompting William Nelson, head of North American analysis at BNEF, to make the following assessment in the report:

“In 2015, we’ll take a giant, permanent step toward decarbonizing our entire fleet of power plants.”

Problem #3: Report claims natural gas is impeding use of renewables

In addition to claiming that natural gas-fired electrical generation is not contributing significantly to CO2 reductions, the report claims that natural gas is hindering progress on CO2 emissions by slowing conversion to renewable energy:

“… recent studies have shown that gas does not substitute for coal only; growth of emission-free technologies such as solar, wind and nuclear energy is also limited while gas is cheap.”

Several in the renewable energy industry reject this notion, however, stating that natural gas is actually facilitating use of renewables in electrical generation.

Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association explained recently, “Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely.”  Director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Adnan Amim told Bloomberg, “‘Shale gas at low cost can help to create a hybrid system,’ whereby more gas-fired power is fed to the grid…and augmented by wind and solar.”

As a report by the Texas Clean Energy Coalition found, natural gas and renewables “are complementary, not competing, resources.”

Problem #4: Study’s authors have anti-fossil fuel agenda

Lead author Kuishuang Feng and co-author Klaus Hubacek have both pushed peak oil theory, also coauthoring a 2013 study entitled, “Economic Vulnerability to Peak Oil.”  As Hubacek said about the study,

“Our findings provide early warnings to these and related industries about potential trouble in their supply chain,” UMD Professor Hubacek said

Fellow co-author Steven Davis has also previously weighed in publically on his disapproval of natural gas. Davis wrote the following comment article along with fellow UC Irvine professor Christine Shearer for Nature:

“In the absence of new climate policies, increased supplies of natural gas could actually delay    decarbonization of the global energy system.”

The report also cites and relies on the infamous (and now thoroughly discredited) 2011 methane report authored by noted anti-fracking activist scientists Anthony Ingraffea and Robert Howarth.

Conclusion

That countless experts and credible organizations – including the “gold standard” IPCC – have enthusiastically endorsed natural gas as a key contributor to greenhouse gas reductions and a cleaner energy future – should be enough indication that these researchers are on the wrong track.

The fact remains that no other country has made as much progress as the U.S. in cutting C02 emissions while at the same time, growing the economy.  No wonder University of California-Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller has said, “Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”

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