Assessing the Impacts of Shifting From Coal to Natural Gas

In a 2-part series, NPR reports on the rapid downfall of coal as an energy source and its replacement by natural gas - each now produces about one-third of America's electricity. Fracking is key to increased NG supplies - but it carries its own risks

2 minute read

July 17, 2012, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Guy Raz narrates both stories. Reporting on the release of a new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) linking climate change to extreme weather, he presents some startlingly positive news:...."there is a glimmer of hope. It turns out that U.S. carbon emissions are down nearly 8 percent since 2006."

"Another study suggests that it might actually be feasible to meet President Obama's goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by the end of this decade not because of tough new regulations or even legislation, but because of the increasing use of natural gas to generate electricity."

For the first time, natural gas and coal produced the same share of America's electricity in June - 34%, down from coal's domineering 60% in 1988.

"This boom in natural gas has been killing the Appalachian coal industry (the topic of the first NPR report on King Coal) but it also has environmental impacts both good and bad."

Raz interviews Lawrence Cathles, a professor at Cornell University who wrote "Assessing the greenhouse impact of natural gas", who, "took a close look at natural gas usage and found that replacing coal with natural gas would cut about 40 percent of carbon emissions linked to global warming."

However, other studies appear to question that claim. Reporting in Forbes on July 15, James Conca writes, "It turns out that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are much higher from using natural gas to produce electricity than from using coal. So much for the myth that replacing coal with gas will help stave off global warming...."

Aside from greenhouse gas emissions, there appears little if any doubt of the reduction, or even elimination of conventional and toxic pollutants in shifting to natural gas.

"There's a 100 percent reduction in mercury emissions ... [and] a 50 percent reduction in the rate of carbon dioxide production," says Georgia Power plant manager Tony Tramonte, featured in the June 14 NPR report, explaining the changes from his plant's shift from coal to natural gas.

"He also says there's a 99 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide and about a 90 percent reduction in nitrous oxide, with a plant that's now five times larger than the one it replaced."

Thanks to Loren Spiekerman

Sunday, July 15, 2012 in National Public Radio

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