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On Earth Day, we can celebrate being the only country to significantly reduce CO2 emissions – thanks to fracking

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AEI On Earth Day, we can celebrate being the only country to significantly reduce CO2 emissions – thanks to fracking According to data released recently by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), CO2 emissions from America’s electric power sector have dropped by more than 25% since 2007, reversing a multi-decade increase, and they fell last year to a 28-year low, dropping to the lowest level since 1988 (see chart above). What accounts for that historically unprecedented reduction in CO2 emissions from generating the nation’s electricity over the last nine years? Smart government policy? That may have played a minor role. Increased electric power generation from renewables like wind and solar? That also might have helped a little. But solar as an energy source accounted for only 0.90% of the electric power generated in the US last year, an almost insignificant amount. Wind energy is growing faster than solar as a source of electric power, and was responsible for 5.6% of America’s electric power last year, so that played a minor role in the reduction of CO2 emissions from the electric power sector.

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On Earth Day, we can celebrate being the only country to significantly reduce CO2 emissions – thanks to fracking

On Earth Day, we can celebrate being the only country to significantly reduce CO2 emissions – thanks to fracking

According to data released recently by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), CO2 emissions from America’s electric power sector have dropped by more than 25% since 2007, reversing a multi-decade increase, and they fell last year to a 28-year low, dropping to the lowest level since 1988 (see chart above). What accounts for that historically unprecedented reduction in CO2 emissions from generating the nation’s electricity over the last nine years? Smart government policy? That may have played a minor role. Increased electric power generation from renewables like wind and solar? That also might have helped a little. But solar as an energy source accounted for only 0.90% of the electric power generated in the US last year, an almost insignificant amount. Wind energy is growing faster than solar as a source of electric power, and was responsible for 5.6% of America’s electric power last year, so that played a minor role in the reduction of CO2 emissions from the electric power sector. But the big story has been the reduced dependence on coal as an energy source for electric power, and the resulting huge reduction of CO2 emissions from coal used to generate electric power – energy-related coal emissions were lower last year than in any year since 1978, nearly 40 years ago (EIA data here).

Over approximately the last decade, coal’s share as an energy source for electric power has fallen from nearly 50% to only 30% last year, and the majority of that reduction is a direct result of the increased use of natural gas as a substitute for coal. And the increased production of natural gas that facilitated that substitution for coal and reduced CO2 emissions for electric power was a direct result of the revolutionary technologies of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that accessed the oceans of shale gas that were previously unrecoverable with traditional drilling technologies. Over about the last ten years, natural gas as a fuel source for electricity increased from less than 19% to 34% last year, a 15 percentage point increase. Reflecting the abundance of cheap shale gas, natural gas as an energy source, for the first time ever in US history, surpassed coal for generating electric power in both 2015 and 2016. And all indications point to those trends continuing, so we can expect the continued and increased substitution of shale gas for coal to produce the nation’s electricity, with accompanying ongoing reductions in CO2 emissions from America’s electric power sector.

Bottom Line: As we celebrate Earth Day 2017, it’s important to remember that the hydraulic fracking technologies that were responsible for both the dramatic increases in shale gas production in the US and the resulting dramatic decreases in CO2 emissions from electricity generation, were not part of any planned government energy or environment policy or treaty. Rather those promising developments that ended up being environmentally-beneficial happened primarily as a result of the efforts of private, risk-taking energy companies on private land using Made-in-the-USA technologies developed in America’s private sector. In other words, those energy and environmental successes were more of “free market triumph” as oilman Harold Hamm described it, than any deliberate effort by policymakers, politicians or energy bureaucrats to reduce CO2 emissions by government fiat.

A video that was released last for Earth Day 2016 by Energy in Depth appears below and makes many of those same points about the significant contributions fracking and natural gas have been making to lower CO2 emissions. Accompanying the video are some comments by Energy in Depth‘s Katie Brown, including the following:

As the Obama Administration signs the Paris climate agreement this Earth Day, Americans can celebrate the fact that, without ratifying the Kyoto Protocol or adopting cap-and-trade, the United States is the only country in the world that has significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Why? Because of fracking and the increased use of natural gas.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory show that the United States has reduced its CO2 emissions by 9% since 2005, largely due to “increased natural gas consumption and other generation sources.” The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) recently found that “In the United States, emissions declined by 2% (in 2015), as a large switch…to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.” IEA also noted that global carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) stayed flat for the second year, and as IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said, “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”

According to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), since 2005, natural gas has prevented more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted from power plants in the United States. Meanwhile, the use of renewable energy has prevented only 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) put it well when he said, “You know we’ve been improving our emissions in this country without agreeing to the Kyoto Accord, without congressional actions, because of innovations in the natural gas area.”

On Earth Day, we can celebrate being the only country to significantly reduce CO2 emissions – thanks to fracking

Mark Perry
Mark J. Perry is concurrently a scholar at AEI and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. He is best known as the creator and editor of the popular economics blog Carpe Diem. At AEI, Perry writes about economic and financial issues for American.com and the AEIdeas blog.

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