Natural Gas Prices, Coal Use, And Carbon Pollution Jumped In 2013

CREDIT: Flickr user glennia

Emissions of carbon dioxide from energy activities in the United States jumped by 2 percent in 2013 from the year before, according to an early estimate from the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

2013’s emissions estimate is 10 percent lower than emissions levels in 2005, but any number that is not a negative one means that the Obama Administration’s goal of a 17 percent emissions cut from that 2005 level by the end of the decade gets that much harder. The drop in CO2 emissions from 2005 to 2012 was 12 percent, so 10 percent is a step back.



Ideally that dotted line starts dropping fast.

The reason that the United States emitted more carbon pollution in 2013 than in 2012 is mostly due to the fact that the electric power sector burned more coal to power American homes and businesses and less natural gas. The coal industryhit a low in April of last year, but has had an uptick since then.

The first thing this means is that if there is a “War on Coal,” the coal industry made some tactical advances in 2013. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) described on Thursday how the Obama Administration’s proposed limits on carbon pollution from new power plants represent “the drumbeat of the war on coal and the absolute different attacks the (Obama) Administration has put forward to shut down an all of the above energy program.” The day she said this, Freedom Industries was leaking a coal chemical into a river upstream of a water treatment facility in her state that has left 300,000 residents without water for more four days.

Still, regulations like the cross-state air pollution rule and the mercury and air toxic standards rule could lead to the retirement of 60 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants by 2020, so coal’s current rebound could be short-lived. Since burning coal is more carbon-intensive and dirtier than burning natural gas, that would be a good thing for the climate and for people who breathe air.

Natural gas, however, has been getting more expensive following extremely low prices in 2012 caused largely by the fracking boom. In 2013, the average wholesale price for natural gas, taken at Henry Hub in Erath, Louisiana, jumped 35 percent to $3.73 million British Thermal Units (MMBtu). This increase reflected large increases in the price of natural gas throughout the United States, focused largely in New England and New York, which were paying $6.90/MMBtu at the end of 2013 due to pipeline constraints and cold-weather demand. But every region in the country saw a substantial price increase from the year before:



If the price of natural gas increases much more, the gas producers and transporters may have more of a financial incentive to fix methane leaks.

Wholesale electricity prices also increased from 2012 to 2013 in most regions of the country, due to demand spikes, more expensive natural gas, and drier-than-normal conditions in the normally hydroelectrically-flush Pacific Northwest.

Still, the prospect of more expensive natural gas threatens the logic of natural gas being the cheap bridge to a sustainable energy future. As the price of renewable energy steadily drops, the clear need to expand renewables instead of natural gas, with its volatile price changes, becomes clearer.

Both the EIA estimate and the 17 percent goal by 2020 only account for carbon dioxide, which is the most prevalent greenhouse gas, but other more powerful heat-trapping gases are certainly a part of the mix (see: methane). The Obama Administration has said that the only way to meet even that 17 percent goal is through capping emissions from power-plant emissions. Since the current proposed rules for new plants will mostly allow leading-edge natural gas plants to be built, the Administration’s pathway to cutting emissions relies on natural gas. A volatile — and more expensive — gas price complicates that pathway.

One thing that can help reduce the price of electricity is not more cheap coal or gas, but more renewable energy. In Germany, the growth of solar energy has meant that there is more power supplied when demand spikes, which leads to lower wholesale electricity prices. According to NPD Solarbuzz, U.S. solar installations hit a record of 4.2 gigawatts in 2013.

The EIA outlined several other reasons for lower post-2005 emissions: were dampened growth in energy demand during the economic recovery, improved energy efficiency, and higher energy prices.

One bright spot in U.S. carbon pollution trends was announced Monday. The states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which have reacted to the regime’s steadily-declining cap on carbon pollution by lowering CO2 emissions from power plants, will hold an auction in March under a cap 45 percent lower than the cap was in 2009. By 2020, carbon pollution from these sources will be half of 2005 emissions in these nine states. RGGI states include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.