New EIA Data Reveal U.S. Coal Use Rising Again

By Kristin Meek, via World Resources Institute

New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals a troubling trend: Coal-fired power generation — and its associated greenhouse gas emissions — were on the rise as 2012 came to an end.

According to the data, which was released this week, natural gas prices have risen significantly since April of 2012, prompting a rise in coal-fired electric generation (see figure below). This increase marks a dramatic change from the trends we’ve seen in the United States over the past several years. U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector had been falling, mostly due to more electricity being generated by renewables, slowed economic growth, and a greater use of low-cost natural gas, which produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal during combustion.

The new uptick in gas prices and coal use suggests that we cannot simply rely on current market forces to meet America’s emissions-reduction goals. In fact, EIA projects that CO2 emissions from the power sector will slowly rise over the long term. To keep emissions on a downward trajectory, the Administration must use its authority to prompt greater, immediate reductions by putting in place emissions standards for both new and existing power plants.

What Happens if Market Forces Continue Changing?

Over the past several years, low natural gas prices, along with increased gas extraction, have contributed to the power sector shifting away from coal-fired generation toward natural gas-fired generation. In fact, the U.S. produced less than 40 percent of its electricity using coal for most of 2012. The last time this occurred was for a very brief period of time in 1978.

However, the most recent data from EIA shows that natural gas prices for the power sector have increased by more than 50 percent since April 2012. Over the long-term, EIA expects that natural gas prices for the power sector will increase by about 3.4 percent each year from 2012 through 2040. On top of these price increases, electricity demand is expected to grow by 28 percent by 2040. EIA projects an increase in both natural-gas fired generation (30 percent), as well as coal-fired generation (18 percent) between now and 2040 to meet this demand. Without additional regulations, these trends are poised to increase U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

EPA Regulations Can Help Prevent a Backslide in Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The good news is that the Obama Administration has the tools to not only prevent an increase in CO2 emissions, but to put the country on track to achieve its goal of reducing emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Emissions standards for new power plants, like those proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year, can help ensure that our climate’s future is not subject to the vagaries of fossil fuel markets, and that new coal plants will not be built unless they contain greenhouse gas emissions controls like carbon capture and storage.

Standards for existing power plants — which the EPA has yet to propose — would offer an important complement to these standards. With power plants accounting for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they offer a high potential for curbing the effects of climate change. New standards would drive emission reductions from the existing fleet of power plants through measures such as onsite and consumer efficiency improvements, increasing renewable deployment, and by using low-emitting generators instead of dirtier units. For example, even with low natural gas prices, the existing fleet of combined cycle natural gas units is not operating close to full capacity. New standards could encourage using this currently unused capacity instead of coal, presenting a large opportunity to reduce emissions in the near-term by increasing generation from existing natural gas plants. We can’t simply assume that the markets will drive this switch.

WRI’s research shows that standards for both existing and new power plants are essential if the United States is to achieve its 2020 emissions-reduction target. As we see with the new EIA data, the dynamics of the market are not sufficient to achieve this goal. Acting now on emissions standards for power plants will not only set the country up to achieve its short-term GHG goals, it will ensure that power generation becomes cleaner for future generations—even in the face of market variations.

LEARN MORE: Download WRI’s publication, Can the U.S. Get There from Here? Using Existing Federal Laws and State Action to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Kristin Meek is an Associate in the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute. This piece is reprinted with permission.

12 Responses to New EIA Data Reveal U.S. Coal Use Rising Again

  1. fj says:

    No excuse.

    Emissions reductions must be greatly accelerated to 2020 to effectively slow accelerating climate change.

  2. Tami Kennedy says:

    This as I read sequester is cutting staff responsible for industry safety.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    Absent any public policy that tilts the economic landscape in a way to favor the outcomes society desperately needs, the “free market” (which includes the market for political influence) will deliver short term gains at the expense of our collective, long term well being.

    Anyone who expects anything else is seriously deluded.

    The only answer is to get as many people as possible engaged with and activated on the topic of climate chaos. That is the challenge facing those of us who know what’s going on, so we can ensure that backsliding (like this shift back to coal, even marginally) doesn’t happen. Progress needs to be a one-way ratchet.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Let’s hope WRI doesn’t buy the gas as a “clean bridge fuel” line being spouted by Koch and Exxon operatives.

    It’s not coal vs. gas, which has similar GHG emissions, according to NOAA. We need to stop burning both, and soon.

  5. Bill Moyers told the students at Occidental Univ. that “The only answer to organized money is organized people.” And then he repeated “The ONLY answered to organized money is organized people.”

    So far, despite the efforts of and similar organizations, we lack critical mass of organized people.

    Compare the effort to control ghg emissions to that to gain equal marriage rights. Climate change threatens the very existence of human life sometime in the future. DOMA affects the lives of some percentage of the population right now. It is no contest in gaining the organizational power to affect equal marriage rights. Even Rush Limbaugh has announced that “This issue is lost. I don’t care what the Supreme Court does. This is inevitable. And it’s inevitable because we lost the language on this.”

    But he still calls global warming a hoax. Do we have to wait until climate change is irreversibly here in order to hear Rush say the same about global waring?

  6. Peter Anderson says:

    This is NOT good reporting of the issue, and from WRI of all places.

    While field data is still being compiled, the weight of what we do know is that the shift from coal to natural gas for power generation increases, not decreases, GHG emissions, especially in the critical near term when the latest Global Warming Potential from NASA is used.

    If the subject were no climate changing pollutants, fine, what is stated would be true. But to purport that gas conversion helps climate is an industry fabrication, a creature of the all-of-the-above world of never never land that ought have no place in Climate Progress.

  7. BobbyL says:

    This article is a reminder that 1) we need stronger emissions goals, 2) we need a cap on carbon emissions, and 3) we need to start preparing for 4C.

  8. BobbyL says:

    There is an argument going on about which is worse, gas or coal. The emissions from burning fuel are only one factor. Another is release of methane with gas. And another is gas burns cleaner and doesn’t release aerosols which have a cooling effect. So in the short term, which is now critical, gas may cause more warming than coal. The bottom line is we probably have reduce the use of both gas and coal. Thinking we are accomplishing something by limiting the focus to coal use seems like a mistake.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Plenty more proles where the last lot came from.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A ‘free market’ will only ever deliver just, efficient and humane outcomes where ‘market power’ is as nearly equally distributed as possible. In a society such as the USA, and nearly all other neo-liberal capitalist economies, where inequality of wealth and income is huge and growing rapidly, ‘the Market’ is distorted by the rich elite’s money power, to produce outcomes designed to advantage the rich at the expense of all others. In other words, in an unequal society, the Market works to exacerbate inequality in an open-ended process that ends in poverty, debt servitude and neo-feudalism, but that, plainly, is the precise object of the exercise.

  11. SecularAnimist says:

    We need to make the wind energy production tax credit permanent, and bigger. We need to aggressively subsidize utility / industrial scale solar (both PV and thermal). And perhaps most importantly we need a nationwide feed-in tariff to encourage the fastest and widest possible deployment of rooftop PV.

    What’s happening with solar in Germany and Australia right now is simply amazing, and there is every reason that the USA could do much better than either of those countries.

  12. David Goldstein says:

    Wesley: I agree completely. If you want, give me an email at I was trained by Al Gore’s group Climate Reality as a ‘Climate Leader’ and have worked with the 350 folks as well. I have an idea for a climate communication campaign to bring more people ‘into the fold’. I’m looking for feedback from folks I’d love to run the idea by you and get some feedback.
    thanks. David.