This spring, scientists recorded the highest average levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in human history. In response, climate researchers and environmentalists have redoubled their pleas for a transition to alternative energy sources.
Abandoning all forms of fossil fuel, however, isn’t a realistic strategy for reducing carbon pollution. Any short-term plan for cutting emissions has to involve one of the cleanest and most economically viable energy sources available right now: natural gas. The adoption of natural gas has already helped cut carbon pollution in the United States. Those concerned about emissions levels need to embrace natural gas as an indispensible part of our energy future.
Despite historically high global emissions, the United States has been one of the few success stories in the fight to reduce carbon pollution. U.S. emissions rose for nearly two decades, increasing by more than 20 percent between 1992 and 2007. Then, in 2008, the nation’s carbon-dioxide output dropped to levels not seen in years.
Since then, U.S. emissions have remained below their peak levels. Between 2005 and 2012, America’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by nearly 10 percent, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Energy Department doesn’t expect U.S. emissions to return to their 2005 levels for another 26 years.
What caused this stark reduction? The most significant factor is the transition away from coal towards natural gas in U.S. power plants. Energy derived from natural gas causes roughly half the carbon emissions as energy from coal.
And thanks to breakthroughs in drilling technology, America’s supply of the resource has spiked in recent years. In the case of shale gas, U.S. production increased by more than 800 percent between 2007 and 2012.
This natural-gas deluge has sent prices tumbling, providing a strong incentive to use the clean-burning fuel. As of 2012, 30 percent of America’s electricity comes from natural gas. And by 2035, natural gas is expected to surpass coal as the nation’s chief source of electricity according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Given its effects on pollution, natural gas should be seen as an important tool for addressing global emissions. And yet, many activists demonize natural gas and the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
Environmentalists have claimed that fracking poses a threat to groundwater, whether through the contamination of drinking water or the depletion of supplies. And yet, in the drilling technique’s 60-year history, there have been no confirmed cases where fracking has directly resulted in groundwater contamination. Well sites feature safeguards against such contamination, including rubber composite mats under rigs and liners under well pads.
As for the charge that fracking leads to water shortages, the opposite is more likely true. A recent study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that, in Texas, generating electricity from natural gas rather than coal actually conserves water. Natural-gas power plants are so water efficient, in fact, that they save 25 to 50 times the amount of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process.
Still, researchers and activists insist that any plan to reduce emissions should exclude natural gas. According to Mark Z. Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University, the latest global emissions numbers reveal the “need to focus more heavily on solutions to this problem, namely converting to wind, water and solar power for all purposes.”
The problem is, energy sources likes wind and solar aren’t economically competitive and won’t be for years to come. A new report by the EIA estimates that, by 2019, the total per-kilowatthour cost of electricity from offshore wind farms will be more than $204. For electricity derived from solar thermal technology, that cost will be more than $243.
The same report puts the per-kilowatt hour cost of electricity from a conventional combined-cycle natural gas plant at less than $67 in 2019. Even after adjusting for subsidies, the price of these solar and wind technologies will far exceed that of natural gas.
In light of record-setting carbon levels, those committed to reducing emissions need to look for realistic energy solutions that can cut pollution right now. As long as technologies like wind and solar remain uncompetitive, natural gas will be the most promising alternative.
Chris Faulkner is chief executive officer of Breitling Energy Corporation.