Amber Schrum: Is Natural Gas the Bridge to a Low Carbon Future?

Energy Information Administration projections suggest that the substitution of shale gas as a transitional fuel to a low carbon economy cannot be assumed in the United States. The increase in shale gas drilling and use has been complemented “by a reduction in the proportion of coal-based electricity generation, although absolute consumption of coal has not altered significantly” (as cited in Broderick et al., 2011, p. 38). Switches from coal to natural gas in the United States have accounted for about half of the 3.8 percent decrease in energy-related emissions in 2012 to a level last seen in the 1990s (Mufson, 2013). From a peak in 2007, total emissions have fallen 8 percent (Grose, 2013). The International Energy Agency warned that this drop in emissions might not continue because gas prices were unusually low in 2012, below $2 per million BTU, due to a glut of shale gas on the market caused by a lack of storage facilities and increased gas production (Mufson, 2013; Plumer, 2013). Carbon dioxide emissions for the U.S. energy sector have already increased 2.6 percent in the first half of 2013 compared to 2012, according to preliminary data. The Energy Information Administration expects the increase to continue (Plumer, 2013).
To date there has been no sign that shale gas has substituted for coal use globally. The U.S. boom in shale gas is currently primarily domestic because there are few natural gas export facilities, while there is plenty of capacity to ship coal abroad (Clark, 2013). U.S. use of coal fell by 11 percent in 2012 and domestic coal production fell by 7 percent. U.S. coal exports rose 17 percent to a new record since 2011, 12 percent higher than the previous maximum reached in 1981 (Grose, 2013). The U.S. net export of coal has tripled from 2007 to 2010, and will continue to grow as exports are increased to Asian markets (as cited in Broderick et al., 2011, p. 38). It is estimated that half of the U.S.’ reported reduction of carbon emissions could be reversed from a global perspective because other countries will burn the exported coal (Grose, 2013). This increase in coal exports is tied to a 1.4 percent increase of 2012 global carbon dioxide emissions from energy, according to the International Energy Agency (Mufson, 2013).
Is coal production decreasing enough to counterbalance the shale gas boom in production? Looking at the amount of carbon extracted from the earth instead of emissions, it shows that there has been no decline, but an upward trend in the amount of carbon that the U.S. is mining. “Despite or because of the shale gas revolution, ‘American carbon’ is flowing into the global economy and atmosphere faster than ever” (Clark, 2013). “At the global level no new major energy source has stopped the existing sources from expanding.” Even as the energy mix changes, energy use and carbon emissions show exponential growth. Each new energy source increases access to and demand for preexisting sources of energy. The shale gas boom has not drastically impacted U.S. carbon production or global emissions because new energy sources are typically added to existing sources (Clark, 2013). “Switching from coal to gas only saves carbon if the coal stays in the ground,” said John Broderick, a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at Manchester University (Grose, 2013). We must focus on regulating the flow of carbon out of the ground to the atmosphere instead of believing that renewable energy or shale gas will reduce emissions by themselves (Clark, 2013).
If a new generation of gas-fired power plants is brought online they will carry on and encourage a fossil fuel energy future. However, gas-fired power plants produce carbon emissions for decades, which renewable energy options would not. Gas-fired power plants brought online in the next 10 years can remain on the grid for 25 to 40 years (Harvey 2011). Issues with shale gas arise when it is deemed a transitional fuel to a low carbon economy. “The problem is you build a gas plant for 40 years. That’s a long bridge,” said James Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy. “What if, with revelations around methane emissions, it turns out to be only a 10 or 20 percent reduction of carbon from coal? If that’s true, gas is not the panacea” (Lustgarten, 2011b).