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CO2 emissions at lowest levels in decades in the U.S.

Author: Jared Wright - December 4, 2017 - Updated: August 1, 2018


The United States has seen a dramatic decrease in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade due to the increased use of natural gas, according to federal government data.

A U.S. Energy Information Agency report from April said that U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell nearly 2 percent in 2016, after dropping 2.7 percent between 2014 and 2015.

The numbers are consistent with a decade-long trend in CO2 emission reductions, with 2016 levels 14 percent below those recorded in 2005, according to the report,

Data released by the EIA over the last two years have shown emissions of CO2 — a greenhouse gas — steadily declining to their lowest levels in nearly 30 years. A report from August 2015 revealed that in April of that year CO2 emissions from the nation’s electric power generating sector — the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — had reached a 27-year low. A similar report from October 2016 showed that emissions for the first six months of 2016 were at the lowest levels since 1991.

John Harpole, founder and president of natural gas brokerage and research firm Mercator Energy, says that these reductions have allowed the U.S. to attain international emission goals, even without being officially a party to climate treaties.

“The United States was not a signatory to the Kyoto Accords,” Harpole said. “And yet we met our share of the emissions targets set for us in the protocol.”

The EIA, along with independent energy sector analysts, say the reductions are predominantly a result of increased use of natural gas in electrical generation. Harpole echoes the EIA’s findings, crediting the recent shale gas boom for the drop.

“The decrease in CO2 emissions we have experienced here in the U.S. is by virtue of coal-fired plants being replaced with gas-fired ones,” Harpole said.

Natural gas — which experts say burns cleaner than traditional electrical generation fuels and generates around 50 percent less CO2 — has been making up an increasing percentage of the electrical generation pie as new production technologies such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” have unlocked vast domestic gas reserves, bringing prices down to where it has out-competed coal. An EIA report form January of this year reveals that 2016 natural gas prices were the lowest in nearly 20 years, down from more than $8 per million BTU in 2008 to just above $2.

Just like you cannot promise your kids kite flying weather next weekend, or your daughter a perfect sunny day for her wedding, the unpredictability of wind and solar conditions mean that you need a dispatchable backup source to ensure a stable electrical grid.” – John Harpole, Mercator Energy founder and president

The production-fueled price decrease has resulted in natural gas becoming the single largest source fuel for electrical generation, comprising an average of 33 percent of electrical generation in the U.S.

Kelly Sloan, energy policy fellow for Colorado’s Centennial Institute, says that improvements in hydraulic fracturing technology — a production process which uses a pressurized water-sand mixture to create tiny fractures in hydrocarbon bearing rock formations thousands of feet below the surface — coupled with horizontal drilling, have allowed domestic energy companies to unlock previously inaccessible oil and natural gas reserves trapped in shale, amounting to millions of cubic feet of domestic natural gas.

“The resulting increase in supply created a price point that allowed natural gas to compete favorably with other sources, such as coal,” said Sloan. “This naturally led to an increase in use for power generation, which has in turn directly resulted in a decrease in carbon emissions.”

The United States is doing better in reducing GHG emissions than parts of Europe despite efforts by the European Union and individual national governments to greatly expand the use of renewables. Germany, for instance, saw a nearly 1 percent increase in carbon emissions in 2016, according to energy market research group AG Energiebilanzen.

Energy industry experts in Germany say that the increase is the result of an overemphasis on renewables — which still only make up about 14 percent of the central European nation’s power-generation mix, despite years of expansion efforts.

Stefan Kapferer, head of Germany’s utilities lobby, said at a news conference in Berlin last year that natural gas use was the key to getting Germany’s GHG emissions under control.

“Natural gas must play a central role in Germany’s energy supply until 2050,” Kapferer stated, adding that “it can be used to pick the low hanging fruits in the short term and support the country’s energy supply through technologies like power-to-gas in the long term.”

While America’s fracking-induced shale gas boom has resulted in CO2 emission reductions domestically, opponents of the oil and gas industry raise concerns that the benefits may be negated or even reversed due to methane leakage in the production process. But many experts in the field counter by pointing to several studies conducted by the EPA, Environmental Defense Fund and several universities that indicate methane leakage rates during natural gas production fall within 1.1 to 1.5 percent of total gas production — a figure that remains well below the 3.2 percent rate scientists say is the threshold for creating climate change effects.

Additionally, while both wind and solar use has increased, those increases are extraordinarily minor compared to the boost in natural gas use. The EIA states that renewables (including hydroelectric) make up only 14.9 percent of the nation’s electrical generation, with wind and solar shares at only about 6.5 percent.

“Renewables do not work without a dispatchable resource like natural gas backing it up,” explained Harpole.

Harpole goes on to say that a combination of factors makes the shale gas boom, and the resulting environmental benefits, something that is unique to the U.S.

“The combination of private property rights, technological innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit is what allowed the shale revolution to take place and effect a reduction in our national CO2 emissions” he said. “This could only happen in the U.S.”

Jared Wright

Jared Wright

Jared Wright runs the business side of Colorado Politics, including circulation, advertising and marketing. He started as CEO and Publisher of the Statesman in 2015 and served as editor-in-chief for the journal during part of that time. He has worked in politics at both the state and federal levels, serving on a U.S. Congressman’s staff and working in government affairs in the private sector. Wright was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2012 and served as member of Colorado’s 69th General Assembly from 2013-2014. He is also a writer, photographer and cartoonist.