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Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom?

by John Brian Shannon | March 18, 2013

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which is the cleanest fossil fuel of all?

You guessed it! Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel – and by significant margins as data from the Environmental Protection Agency illustrates in the chart below.

Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998
Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998

Natural gas, as the cleanest of the fossil fuels, can be used in many ways to help reduce the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Burning gas in the place of other fossil fuels emits fewer harmful pollutants, and an increased reliance on natural gas can potentially reduce the emissions of many of the most harmful pollutants. — naturalgas.org

After investigating the externalities associated with conventional sources of energy and cognizant of their commitments towards clean air, many nations have begun to embrace natural gas as a stepping stone towards a cleaner energy future.

In the U.S.A., as far back as 2003 when coal supplied more than 50% of America’s electrical power, coal-fired plants have been retired more quickly than new ones have come online. By 2012, coal supplied only 38% of U.S. electricity.

Nine gigawatts of U.S. coal-fired power generation were shutdown in 2012 alone, and replaced by an almost equal amount of gas power generation. Emission levels from those comparably-sized replacement natural gas power plants are less than half of those retired coal-fired plants!

Many more U.S. coal-fired power plants are scheduled for complete shutdown or conversion to natural gas over the next few years, totalling 35 GigaWatts (GW) according to experts.

Chart courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration — shows carbon emissions dropping as a result of switching from coal to gas,  2005-2012.

U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Carbon emissions of all end-use Sectors have decreased since 2005 in the United States.

The largest reductions appear to be due to the Electric Power and Transportation sector’s emissions, followed by the Industrial, Residential and Commercial sectors.

[Of all sectors] “the largest reduction to carbon emissions is due to coal-to-natural gas ‘fuels switching’ and construction of higher efficiency power plants. 

Expansion of renewable power, overwhelmingly due to expanded wind power, has been the second largest factor to reduced Power Sector carbon emissions.” – theenergycollective.com

Many expert studies show CO2 emissions dropping as a result of the combined effects of many countries switching from coal to natural gas and/or renewables, 1990-2100.

Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell 'New Lens Scenarios'
Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the energy choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell ‘New Lens Scenarios’

The change-up to renewable energy will vary by country as OECD nations continue to take the lead in renewable energy between now and 2100. Even so, total worldwide emissions will drop dramatically and the switch from coal to natural gas is one big step towards a cleaner environment.

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