A Matter of Perspective

The U.S. Energy Information Administration this week said that carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas-fired electricity generation are surpassing those of coal-fired power:

U.S. primary energy consumption byh fuel and U.S. energy related CO2 emissions by fuel

It’s happening, EIA says, because in 2015, natural gas consumption was 81% higher than coal consumption. 

Is this development a beneficial waypoint in the ongoing transition to cleaner energy? 

Or is it an environmental catastrophe?

The answer depends on your ability to see the whole picture.

So, take a breath.

Literally. Inhale.

If you live in Pennsylvania, the air that’s filling your lungs is undeniably better and healthier thanks to natural gas.

The plain fact is that, when it comes to current public health, natural gas is the victor (as well as the aggressor) in the so-called “war on coal” and is delivering significant overall improvements in air quality. 

The combustion of natural gas to make electricity emits negligible amounts of sulfur, mercury, and particulates—indeed, a fraction of nitrogen dioxidesulphur dioxide,  carbon monoxide, and particulates generated by the combustion of coal. And no lead.  

So, from an air emissions perspective, the switch from coal to gas for making electricity undoubtedly benefits public health.

But there’s a critical caveat. The true life cycle emissions of health-threatening volatile organic compounds and particulates from the production and transmission of natural gas are unknown, which is why I ordered the largest-ever expansion of Pennsylvania’s air quality monitoring network.

And then there’s the question of climate disruption.  First, the quantity of methane emissions resulting from the production and transmission of natural gas is hugely important because of its impact on warming.  The official methane emissions inventory in Pennsylvania—self-reported by industry based on engineering calculations—is suspect at best. And until cheap, ubiquitous methane emission sensors can be developed that would enable innovative emission reduction approaches that are universally adopted by the industry, the deployment of reduction efforts like Pennsylvania’s nation-leading methane emissions reduction strategy is, without question, essential. 

What to do about those CO2 emissions?  Considering that we’re on the precipice of surpassing the 1.5 degree Celsius global warming threshold that was agreed to by the world just last year in Pariscarbon capture for natural gas-fired power plants is, also without question, an essential—and now, increasingly urgent—requirement to preserve a habitable globe (and the viability of the natural gas industry).

To gain a better perspective on the health of people, of our planet, and of our future, we must try to see the whole air emissions picture.

John Quigley

Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center
John Quigley is a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center and previously served on the Center’s Advisory Board. He served as Secretary of the PA Department of Environmental Protection and of the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.