US natural gas emissions to surpass those of coal in 2016

US natural gas emissions to surpass those of coal in 2016

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CO2 emissions from burning natural gas for electricity in US will surpass those from burning coal – the globe’s chief climate polluter.

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Climate Central

The U.S. is expected to reach a major carbon emissions milestone this year: For the first time, carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas for electricity in the U.S. are set to surpass those from burning coal — the globe’s chief climate polluter.

Emissions from burning natural gas are expected to be 10 percent greater than those from coal in 2016, as electric companies rely more on power plants that run on natural gas than those that run on coal, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.

gas plant NC
The H.F. Lee natural gas power plant near Goldsboro, N.C.

In 2015, the U.S. used about 81 percent more natural gas than coal for electricity, but because coal contains more carbon than natural gas does, emissions from burning both were about the same.

Natural gas consumption is expected to continue rising, however, and the EIA expects the U.S. will emit about 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from natural gas in 2016, compared to about 1.4 billion metric tons from coal.

The milestone comes as an ample supply of low-cost natural gas encourages electric power companies to use more gas than coal. That trend is leading to to a continued decline in coal production.

U.S. climate policies, such as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, are also encouraging utilities to shift away from coal as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Countries that signed the Paris Climate Agreement are trying to limit emissions to prevent global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.

Natural gas emits about half as much climate change-driving carbon dioxide as coal. Perry Lindstrom, a greenhouse gas emissions analyst at the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said the rise of natural gas is reducing the carbon intensity — the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of energy — of the energy Americans consume every day.


These graphs show overall U.S. energy consumption and carbon dioixde emissions by fuel through 2015 and projections for 2016.

“You get more energy per metric ton of CO2 emitted from natural gas than from coal,” Lindstrom said.

Burning coal for electricity is about 82 percent more carbon intensive than burning natural gas.

There is a downside to the emissions milestone, however. Though natural gas burns cleaner than coal, producing natural gas and piping it to power plantsleaks methane into the atmosphere.

Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 35 times as potent as carbon dioxide in driving climate change over the span of a century, and global atmospheric concentrations of it have been increasing steadily since 2007. That increase has been tied partly to U.S. natural gas production.

“While natural gas compares relatively favorably to coal when viewed through the CO2 lens, the reverse is true for methane,” said Cornell University biogeochemist Robert Howarth. “Some methane is emitted when we mine coal, but far more methane is emitted when we use natural gas, which is not surprising since natural gas is composed mostly of methane.”

Source: Climate Central. Reproduced with permission.


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  1. Don McMillan 4 years ago

    “Burning coal is 82% more carbon intensive than burning natural gas.” QUOTE!
    The down side if gas leaking from pipelines. Anyone in the business know that gas mitigation is incredibly low, yep any gas can migrate through steel, the quantities are barely measurable. Natural Gas has replaced more US coal fire stations than windfarms or solar can ever do at competitive prices. US electricity prices are substantially less than Europe’s & OZ. Cost effectiveness Natural Gas can lower emissions more effectively than renewables – unless you ban Natural gas exploration.

    • Ren Stimpy 4 years ago

      Perhaps now, but not in the mid to long term. Advanced automation will be a game changer in a range of sectors over the next ten years (and it will probably put most of us out of our jobs). Solar panel and battery production will become highly automated to squeeze every last drop of cost reduction out of their production – there’s already a clear and predictable long term cost reduction trend in these technologies. Gas exploration and networks on the other hand can’t be automated and there’s no long term predictable trend to rely on for the price of gas.

      • Don McMillan 4 years ago

        How things turn out only time will tell. Gas price has always been subject to the supply and demand balance in a free market. We have enough gas to last 100’s if not 1000’s of years. When gas prices go up investment kicks in technology advances which inevitability generates an oversupply. In the US Gas prices fell from $13/GJ to $3/GJ due to price and technology advancements. Here in OZ we have basically outlawed natural gas exploration in Tas, Vic, NSW & NT. Gas prices have gone up but for the first time in history investment has gone down. So here in OZ we have chosen to interfere with the supply. The supply and demand will balance out as factories/customers etc move offshore or switch to coal. Tampering with the market guarantees gas price will increase. This is our choice.

        • Ren Stimpy 4 years ago

          That reduction in US gas prices from $13/GJ to $3/GJ came about by way of an order-of-magnitude scale-up. Does the US natural gas industry have another fast order-of-magnitude scale-up ready to go now that would drop the price down to 75c/GJ? I don’t think so. Their scale-up was a one-off. Hyphen-typing finger is getting a bit sore, partially due to this sentence.

          Solar and batteries do have another fast scale-up ready to go, and another one immediately after that, and then another, and another, and so on, with each scale-up dropping the price by an order-of-magnitude.

          No argument, we have enough gas to last 1000’s of years, no doubt we have enough coal to last 1000’s of years (and no doubt we have enough stones to last a stone age). But at what price? And not in the rhetorical environmentalist sense – I want to know what the actual dollar price will be.

          • Don McMillan 4 years ago

            The cause of the dramatic US scale up was due to high gas prices attracting investment which due to competition generated amazing high technology to unlock resources that had been discovered over 40 years ago. For natural gas less than $2/GJ would is challenging. Current ~ $2.80
            If Solar & Batteries can competitive generate energy at equivalent price that would be great. You’ll always need NG etc for plastics, fertiliser, steel etc etc.
            Predicting commodity prices is impossible. Look at oil no-one predicted oil price we have today 10, 20 or 30 years ago. My experience is when a commodity price increases investment follows until a surplus cause the price to decrease. 101 economics. I can predict the gas price here in OZ. It will go up and up until gas consumers move their factories offshore or switch to coal. IPL has started with the announcement that their Brisbane fertiliser plant to shut and they are opening a factory in the US. [ASX 10May16]

          • Ren Stimpy 4 years ago

            No argument around industrial processes, my argument was around electricity generation – the price of electrons from renewables and batteries vs from gas-fired generation by for example 2025 or 2030. The cost effectiveness of lowering emissions will be better from renewables and batteries than gas if the price trends are traced out to that time, and other expected advancements in automation will add some salt to that soup.

          • Don McMillan 4 years ago

            That is fine if what you say is true then market forces will determine the most effective- which is always the best. Renewables have the disadvantage that they rely on fossil fuels in the manufacturing and maintenance. Windfarms are hopeless, solar I feel has a future. Batteries are Natural gas’ future. The issue is that every location is has a specific solution which is unlinear. South OZ experiment highlights the non-linear approach where lowering emissions at extreme costs causes economic harm. In the end business is uncompetitive unless they move overseas. My preference is renewables and Natural gas and in many case coal optimise both emissions and economics. It is an engineering problem.

          • Ren Stimpy 4 years ago

            Agree, market forces will determine the most effective and efficient sources of electricity generation. It’s good though to have some reliable predictions as to what these will be.

            In my experience government knows best because they have at their disposal the very best of advice. The government is subsidising renewables because it knows these sources are the future of energy generation – obviously guided by price reduction trends. They would not knowingly subsidise a dead end.

          • Don McMillan 4 years ago

            We are merging.
            I deal with politicians – all have to be pragmatic – that is do what it takes to remain in power. When you hear politicians decision was based on “community concerns” is code we are ignoring all advice from scientists, engineers, economists etc. Good example is Northern territory, ban on Fracking. They held their own enquiry [Mar14] which OK’d the technology – but still banning it. Chief Scientist of NSW OK’s the technology still banned. Same with Victoria contradicted their enquiry headed by Peter Reith. The list is endless.
            Now I understand why Galileo was jailed not because of science but “community concerns”

          • Ren Stimpy 4 years ago

            So you understand why govt won’t subsidise Natural Gas. No potential for price reduction! Greenies be damned, pre-conceptions be damned, science be damned. You have to face the truth – see our banter above – it was shunned because it was not economic (dollar terms) in the long term!

            Galileo was a pussy. The Beatles (It’s Real Love) would have kicked his ass.

          • Ren Stimpy 4 years ago

            Are you getting some wift of the theme there, some kind of trait of the point, some element of the message – that communities don’t like chemical fracking in their neighbourhood?

          • Don McMillan 4 years ago

            Firstly they should not of invited them in the first place. Secondly if you change your mind you should compensate the petroleum companies for their loss of property. Thirdly don’t blame petroleum companies for the gas price increase.
            If you are really concern about aquifers the number one cause of damage is waterbores and “spills from surface”. When the agricultural companies drill they have no requirement to identify or isolate water and gas which I why they can light up the kitchen tap [gaslands]. In 150 yrs of the technology no aquifer has been damaged as no litigation has occurred. In QLD the Defence dept has been accused of damaging the aquifer around Oaky – litigation has commended. Fracking been there since 1960’s no damage.
            So if you do-not want natural gas exploration fine! Do not invite exploration companies in the first place. secondly ban the import of natural gas and its derived products e.g fertiliser. E.G. The NSW farmers demand gas from QLD. go figure. NSW domgas users and activists should decide what they want rather than yell at the Petroleum companies.

          • Ren Stimpy 4 years ago

            I have edited the snarkiness out my question above, which wasn’t called for.

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