An annual report spearheaded by Ceres and co-sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) — both well-known anti-fracking groups — has (again) been forced to acknowledge shale gas’ huge role in reducing U.S. air pollution and carbon emissions.
“Benchmarking Air Emissions” analyzes sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), mercury and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the nation’s 100 biggest power producers, which are responsible for 85 percent of the country’s electricity and 86 percent of the industry’s reported emissions. This year’s report finds these emissions have “decreased dramatically” thanks in large part to natural gas,
“Increased natural gas generation and a decrease in coal generation, driven in large part by low natural gas prices, have contributed to the reduction in emissions. Over the last decade and a half, natural gas generation has more than doubled, while coal generation decreased by nearly 40 percent.”
Specifically, the report finds:
- CO2 emissions from these producers are down 20 percent since 2005.
- SO2 emissions have declined 87 percent since 1990.
- NOX emissions are down 79 percent since 1990.
- Mercury emissions are down 69 percent since 2000.
As the following chart from the report clearly illustrates, the upward trajectory of natural gas use for power generation (center) directly correlates with the downward trend of all of these emissions (left) along with an unprecedented trend of economic growth coupled with such reductions.
As the report notes,
“The electric industry has cut its NOx, SO2, and CO2 emissions even as overall electricity generation and GDP have increased.”
“In 2016, CO2 emissions were 19 percent lower than 2000 levels. Over the same period, total U.S electricity generation increased by 7 percent, while GDP grew 33 percent.”
Considering natural gas emits almost no SO2 and mercury, and far less NOx and CO2 than other fossil fuels, it’s no surprise that these emissions have declined as natural gas’ share of electric generation increased from 22 percent in 2007 to 33 percent in 2015, according to the report.
As remarkable as the long-term emission declines detailed in the report are, it’s even more impressive how much emissions declined from 2014 to 2015 alone.
According to data from last year’s Ceres “Benchmarking” report, major power plant SO2 emissions declined 32 percent from 2014 to 2015 (2.82 million tons to 1.91 million tons), while NOx emissions declined 18 percent (1.43 million tons to 1.17 million tons), mercury emissions declined 33 percent (18.67 million tons to 12.56 million tons) and CO2 emissions declined eight percent (1.96 billion tons to 1.8 billion tons) during that time.
It is no coincidence that these reductions were in large part due to natural gas’ share of the power generation mix jumping from 27 percent in 2014 to 33 percent in 2015, as the report (reluctantly) acknowledges,
“Some of the factors driving this trend include slow economic growth, energy efficiency improvements, and the displacement of coal generation by natural gas and renewable energy resources.”
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has fully acknowledged natural gas’ role in reducing emissions, even noting that the current shift of electrical generation fuels to natural gas has accounted for 68 percent of the total reduction in U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions during last decade. This is a significant reason the U.S. is the only major nation that has reduced carbon emissions.
As EID highlighted in its recent “Compendium of Studies Demonstrating the Safety and Health Benefits of Fracking,” the SO2, NOx and mercury emission reductions detailed in this report are important considering power plants have traditionally been the top sources of these criteria pollutants, which EPA has said “can harm your health and the environment.”
SO2 in particular is “of greatest concern” for health, according to EPA, primarily because it can combine with NOx to form fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is responsible for millions of deaths worldwide. The Ceres report notes that PM2.5 “can trigger asthma attacks and lead to other respiratory illnesses” — outcomes activists claim are exacerbated by fracking, even though EPA data show PM2.5 emissions have declined 34 percent since 2005.
Numerous experts have noted that the reduction in emissions is a direct result of increased natural gas use made possible by fracking. As University of California-Berkeley Professor of Physics Richard Muller has explained,
“[S]hale gas results in a 400-fold reduction in PM2.5, a 4,000-fold reduction in sulfur dioxide (S02), a 70-fold reduction in nitrous oxide (NOx) and more than a 30-fold reduction in mercury.”
The data is so overwhelming, that even this NRDC-funded report cannot deny the reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions made possible by fracking. No wonder NRDC supported natural gas as recently as 2000 (see below) before changing its tune once the shale revolution took hold.