U.S. Energy Agency Projects A 2.8 Percent Increase In 2013 Carbon Emissions From Fossil Fuels

Last month, the Energy Information Administration released data showing a strong drop in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in the first quarter of 2012. With CO2 emissions falling to their lowest levels in 20 years, some expressed optimism that it was representative of a positive long-term shift.

However, as we pointed out, it looks like this drop in America’s “carbon weight” is mostly based on a fad diet consisting of natural gas — a fuel considered the “crack cocaine” of the utility sector — not necessarily on a new, healthy energy diet of efficiency and renewables. (Going even deeper, the EIA figures don’t factor in methane from natural gas, so we still don’t know how much the boom in gas has impacted our overall greenhouse gas emissions).

New data from the EIA backs up concerns that the 2012 drop in CO2 isn’t as big as it seems.

According to the agency’s latest short-term outlook, CO2 emissions in the power sector are set to rise by 2.8 percent in 2013 after declining by 2.3 percent in 2011 and 2.4 percent in 2012. Why? Because natural gas prices are on the upswing, thus reducing gas consumption in the electric power sector and encouraging more consumption of coal:

After declining by 2.3 percent in 2011, fossil fuel emissions are projected to further decline by 2.4 percent in 2012, but this decline is followed by an increase of 2.8 percent in 2013. Petroleum emissions decline in 2012 (1.4 percent) and grow only 0.2 percent in 2013. Natural gas emissions rise by 5.2 percent and 0.1 percent in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Coal emissions decline 8.9 percent in 2012, but their projected rise of 8.5 percent in 2013 is spurred by a 19‐percent increase in the cost of natural gas for electricity while the cost of coal for power generation stays flat.

The share of total generation fueled by natural gas during the first half of 2012 averaged 30.4 percent compared with 22.3 percent during the same period last year. This increase in fuel share was driven by a cost of natural gas that was very low relative to the cost of coal. However, in June, the average Henry Hub natural gas spot price surpassed the average spot price for Central Appalachian coal for the first time since October 2011, indicating that the recent trend of substituting coal‐fired generation with natural‐gas‐fired generation may be slowing and will likely reverse. In light of the data indicating that power generators have recently been more responsive to changes in relative fuel costs, EIA has revised its projections for the generation fuel mix during 2013. EIA now expects that the higher natural gas prices next year will lead to a 9.5‐percent decline in natural gas‐fired generation while coal‐fired generation increases by 9.3 percent.

EIA expects non-hydro renewables to grow in 2013, but only by about 4.1 percent.

The impact of rising natural gas prices is the really interesting story here. Even with a modest increase in average gas prices — from $2.65 per MMBtu to $3.34 per MMBtu — we see a fairly substantial shift back toward coal consumption. And with some experts reporting that we only have between 10-20 years of abundant natural gas (not 100, as the industry claims), a much steeper price increase is probable, which could possibly fuel even greater increases in coal burning.

At  the same time, rising gas prices will also take some of the pressure off renewables that compete directly with the resource. However, as this data shows, it may also encourage more coal generation in the short and mid term. We’ve made progress in reducing emissions from fossil fuels in the electric power sector, but it’s still uncertain how steady those decreases will prove.

9 Responses to U.S. Energy Agency Projects A 2.8 Percent Increase In 2013 Carbon Emissions From Fossil Fuels

  1. This article gives the mistaken impression that natural gas is solely responsible for the various recent changes in emissions, but mild weather was a more important contributor to Q1 2012 emissions reductions, and other factors contributed as well.

    Please be more comprehensive in your discussion of these issues.

  2. Insert the word “solely” before the word “responsible” in the first line of my previous post.

  3. Does this analogy ring true: We are on the Titanic and have already hit the iceberg. In this analogy there may be time to actually patch the breech in the hull in a progressive manner (i.e.- a bit at a time over the next 24 hours) if we act quickly. Instead we are noting that ‘in the last hour we may be sinking a bit more slowly than we were the hour before. Hmmmmm.” All the while, the icy water has climbed from our shins to our knees and is still climbing. We need to actually REDUCE emissionsas world-wide (in this sense, relatively marginal-and ‘accidental’- reduction in US emissions is somewhat besides the point). And that sort of reduction still seems like simply that is simply far from actual on-the-ground consideration. Loosely translated: ‘F*@#’ 2% US emissions up or down…the f$#@ing boat is sinking.’

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks. You can put The Wonderful New Gas Age right up there with Clean Coal.

  5. Lore says:

    This also doesn’t take into account that we’ve exported a great deal of our CO2 to overseas producers and consumers. Since CO2 knows no borders there is little to celebrate here in a local reduction of emissions. Especially because we’ve done so as a result of economics, weather and not by hard choices.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Gas boondoggle is all about profits and delaying or derailing renewables. The psychological rewards of polluting the water supply with toxic waste are more mysterious, but the Rightist omnicidaires think differently from the rest.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Exactly. A mild winter and economic slow-down, plus outsourcing overseas would seem, to me, to explain most of this reduction-and the rollout of renewables.

  8. Alex J says:

    And to think some have been trying to convince us that King Coal is in it’s death throes. Absent a price on the externality of fossil CO2, it’s up to the same old rules of supply and demand. Throw in some actual economic growth and more demand on natural gas, and maybe it won’t quite be time to sit on those laurels…

  9. Steve says:

    University researchers have published information linking a reduction in red meat to a decrease in chronic diseases and carbon emissions