The United States has made more reductions in greenhouse gas emission than any other nation over the past six years, according to the International Energy Agency. This year, cheap natural gas helped the United States reduce carbon dioxide emissions to an estimated 5.2 billion metric tons, a level not seen since 1992.
Gas from the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wells in the eastern U.S. has flooded the market and slashed the price of natural from $7-$8 down to $3 per unit over the past four years, reported the AP. That made gas cheaper to use than coal. Since natural gas produces less carbon dioxide and other pollutants when it is burned as compared to coal, more natural gas use has resulted in less environmental contamination.
“There’s a very clear lesson here. What it shows is that if you make a cleaner energy source cheaper, you will displace dirtier sources,” Roger Pielke Jr., a climate expert at the University of Colorado, told the AP.
However, the move towards an energy economy inflated with cheap gas has environmental costs. The same economic forces that are squeezing coal out of the energy market are putting the hurt on renewable energy production as well.
“The natural gas boom also presents the prospect of imminent harm to the deployment of renewable energy, and dire environmental consequences that will follow from a failure to cease adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere,” wrote Kevin Doran and Adam Reed of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, a joint institute of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the University of Colorado, in Environment360. “The growing swell toward a utility sector dominated by natural gas has already resulted in collateral damage throughout the renewables industry.”
Besides stifling the development of carbon-free energy sources, the boom in natural gas has been controversial for its impact on the environment. The hydraulic fracturing technique being used to free natural gas from shale formations has been correlated with man-made earthquakes. Some are concerned that ground water supplies are being contaminated by the fluids used in the technique.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, can also leak out of wells or during transportation. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, with approximately 20 times the ability to trap infrared radiation, or heat.
Riverside Energy Center, a natural gas power plant in Wisconsin (Dual Freq, Wikimedia Commons)