New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) was released Wednesday under the headline “Energy-related CO2 emissions from natural gas surpass coal as fuel use patterns change.” Here’s why that’s a good thing: it means dramatically lower overall greenhouse gas emissions.
This, of course, is because “natural gas consumption was 81% higher than coal consumption, and their emissions were nearly equal” as EIA points out in the new report – which goes to show much higher emissions would be if natural gas were not ramping up in electricity generation. EIA also notes “Although use of natural gas and petroleum have increased in recent years … U.S. total carbon intensity [has decreased] from 60 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2005 to 54 MMmtCO2/quad Btu in 2015.” In other words, that significant decline in greenhouse gas emissions took place while natural gas and petroleum production dramatically increased.
Natural gas consumption has hit record levels and that’s why the United States is the only country in the world to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions – a 9 percent decrease since 2005 according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. EIA has also recently projected that U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions will collectively plummet to their lowest levels since 1992, as natural gas use continues to increase.
EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski made natural gas’ role in pretty clear when he recently said,
“The drop in CO2 emissions is largely the result of low natural gas prices, which have contributed to natural gas displacing a large amount of coal used for electricity generation.”
Of course, this is all made possible by shale development, through technological advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology, which has unleashed a historic supply of natural gas. As a result, EIA has recently noted that the current shift of electrical generation fuels to natural gas has accounted for 68 percent of the 14 percent total reduction in U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions during last decade.
EIA is projecting 2016 U.S. CO2 emissions to drop to 5.2 billion metric tons, down 1.5 percent from 2015 levels. This correlates directly with EIA’s estimate that electricity generated using natural gas reached a record high in July, surpassing the previous record set in July 2015. For 2016, EIA expects natural gas to fuel 34 percent of electricity generation compared with 30 percent for coal.
The trend of increased natural gas use and decreasing CO2 emissions has all happened at the same time the U.S. economy has grown 15 percent, reversing a trend in which economic growth has been coupled with emission increases.
That trend has actually being seen on the global scale as well. According to the International Monetary Fund, global GDP grew by 3.4 percent in 2014 and 3.1 percent in 2015, prompting the International Energy Agency (EIA) to state:
“The global economy continued to grow by more than 3%, offering further evidence that the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakening.”
So it’s no wonder every credible organization — from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to IEA and EIA — has said that it’s thanks to fracking and the increased use of natural gas that U.S. CO2 emissions are plummeting.
The EIA has even gone so far as to say the burning of natural gas in the U.S. since 2005 has prevented 1 billion metric tons of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere. For comparison, use of renewables has prevented 600 million metric tons of CO2 emissions in the same timeframe.
And this is a far preferable scenario compared to just 11 years ago, when use of natural gas was far lower, as the new EIA report notes:
“Because coal has a higher carbon intensity, even in a year when consumption of coal and natural gas were nearly equal, such as 2005, energy-related CO2 emissions from coal were about 84 percent higher than those from natural gas,” the report states.
Thankfully, EIA projects natural gas inventories will continue to balloon, projecting they’ll top 4,042 Bcf at the end of October 2016, which would be the highest end-of-October level on record.
While EIA may have produced an eyebrow raising headline, nothing has changed: overall U.S. carbon emissions are continuing to decline significantly thanks to natural gas – and that’s a very good thing.