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Has shale gas really reduced US carbon emissions? The problem of coal exports

Fracking and Fossil Fuels

The diffusion of fracking has allowed the United States to significantly reduce its carbon emissions and to undergo a renaissance in manufacturing. Or so goes the conventional narrative of shale gas’s many promoters. This narrative however faces multiple problems, and faces obvious criticisms of hype and exaggeration. 

Vaclav Smil has extensively argued that the “renaissance” in American manufacturing is not worthy of the term. As Smil remarks: “In the past 12 years, America lost 7 million manufacturing jobs, and it got 400,000 back. Would you call that a renaissance? Definitely not. A renaissance is a glorious flowering beyond the previous state. The US will never regain those millions of manufacturing jobs. Never. Never.”

That fracking has resulted in a decline in America’s “on the books” emissions is something its proponents and opponents can agree on. Yet, a deconstruction of these emissions cuts in light of the rather obvious globalised nature of carbon emissions shows that these emissions cuts may in large part be illusory. In fact they may be as much as 50% lower than thought.

Carbon consumption versus carbon production

Here is the great contradiction in the Obama administration’s apparent climate policy. America is to reduce its carbon emissions while simultaneously increasing its carbon extraction. Today US carbon emissions are at their lowest levels in almost two decades, yet the amount of carbon it extracted from the ground, in the form of oil, coal and natural gas, is now higher than ever. The peculiarities of international climate negotiations mean that what really matters, at least to negotiators, is the stuff that you burn in your country. Therefore the graph below is largely irrelevant to America’s official carbon emissions. As I will explain later this is rather misguided.

(graph: Wonk blog)


Deconstructing the decline in US coal consumption

American coal consumption reached its historic peak in 2007, and has been in decline ever since. This decline is likely to be inexorable. New EPA rules will essentially rule out new coal power plants from being built, and the resulting reduction in coal consumption is unlikely to be offset by increases in coal consumption in America’s manufacturing sector. This transition, away from coal and towards gas fired electricity generation, is one of the key reasons American carbon emissions are down about 12% from 2005 levels.

coalbp
(Graph by author. Data: BP)

 

However this move away from coal is not being reflected elsewhere. Consider the United Kingdom. In 2012 it saw a 30% increase in the use of coal to generate electricity. This had three main causes: low carbon prices, more expensive natural gas, and cheaper coal. And the final cause is related directly to the diffusion of fracking in America. Reduction in internal demand for American coal has led to an increase in exports and a decline in international coal prices. This is reflected in the relative reductions in US coal consumption and production:

coaleia

US annual coal consumption declined from 1,128 to 889 million short tons between 2007 and 2012, a fall of 238 million short tons or 22%. In contrast, annual US coal production fell from 1,147 to 1,016 million short tons in this period, a fall of 130 million short tons or 11%. This suggests that almost half of US coal consumption that has been displaced by natural gas has been exported. Lower certainly than some commentators have claimed, but not low enough to be easily dismissed.

Coal exports can be split into two categories: those that just replace coal that would be consumed elsewhere, therefore not increasing emissions; and those that result in more coal consumption in other countries. The increase in coal consumption in Europe (where coal is replacing gas) suggests that a significant amount of increased US coal exports, perhaps the majority, are of the latter category. The obvious conclusion is that the emissions reductions from US shale gas are over-stated if you focus purely on America’s territorial emissions.

Fracking’s emissions cuts: accounting for coal exports

So, how much has fracking really reduced US emissions? To answer this question I will de-construct a recent statement from a pro-shale gas report by the Breakthrough Institute: “It is not the case that reduced US coal consumption has been offset by increased exports of US coal. From 2008 to 2012, annual coal consumption for US electric power declined, on average, by 50 million tons. Over the same four years, annual exports increased by only 14.5 million tons on average.” 14.5 million tons is certainly lower than 50 million tons, however this statement is overly dismissive of the coal export problem. We can see this by comparing the emissions saved by the reduction in coal use, and those from increased coal exports.

[A brief digression. Why is fracking reducing US emissions? Coal and natural gas power plants rarely run at maximum capacity. Their utilization rate, normally referred to as their load factor, is a result of the respective running costs. The decline in natural gas prices has resulted in gas power plants running more often, and coal plants less often. Gas power plants emit approximately half as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity, therefore emissions have declined.]

Below is a graph of US coal exports since 2007.

coalexports

Like most modernised countries the vast majority of US coal use is in the electricity sector (93% in 2012), and the trend in consumption in the electricity sector since 2007 looks like this:

coalelec

We immediately face a base-lining problem. Between 2008 and 2012 coal consumption declined by 217 million short tons. If we use 2007 as our baseline the decline is 222 million short tons. However if we use 2008 as a baseline the increase in annual coal exports is 44 million short tones over this period, whereas using 2007 gives us a change of 67 million short tons.

The combustion of 1 short ton of coal results in the emissions of 2.86 short tons of carbon dioxide. Therefore, using 2007 as a baseline the increase in annual exported carbon dioxide in the form of coal is 173 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (3.2% of annual US carbon dioxide emissions), and 114 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (2.1% of annual US carbon dioxide emissions) if we use 2008 as our baseline. Gas power plants have carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity of 44-60% of those of coal plants. Therefore if we use 2007 as our baseline approximately 50% of the reduction in US emissions due to coal-gas switching is being offset by exports. The figure is 35% if we use 2008 as our baseline.

This calculation however rests on some uncertain assumptions. It assumes that all of the reduction in coal use were caused by increases in production from natural gas power plants. However, US electricity production declined 2.5% between 2007 and 2012, while wind power increased from 0.8% to 3.3% of electricity generation. Any attribution of reduction in carbon emissions due to fracking has an element of uncertainity attached to it. However this uncertainty is not enough to distract from the key conclusion that a significant amount of these emissions cuts are offset by exported emissions.

Concluding remarks

Experience has taught me that energy debates too often resolve themselves into vacuous pro/anti arguments therefore I will conclude by making some obligatory, but obvious statements. The above conclusions are in no way “anti-fracking.” These problems are faced by renewables and nuclear energy in equal measure. No, the problem is not fracking, but an unwillingness to fully address carbon exports. That some fossil fuel cuts are partly illusory is obvious, if rarely stated. Think about Britain, which has successfully reduced its emissions, but offset almost all of these reductions by exporting them to countries such as China. And think again about whether one country using less coal, oil, or natural gas will have an obvious impact on carbon emissions. As Mike Berners Lee and Duncan Clarke argue in The Burning Question, you using less coal will result in that same coal being cheaper for someone else, who may then be inclined to use more of it.

So, the Obama administration appears to have a stance where the US should simultaneously increase carbon production, while decreasing carbon consumption. When viewed as serious climate policy this is complete mumbo jumbo. If we are to be serious about climate change then it is time we also be serious about carbon accounting.

Data Sources

Energy consumption from coal – BP

US coal consumption, production, and exports – EIA

US coal consumption in electricity sector – EIA

US carbon dioxide emissions – EIA

Robert Wilson's picture

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on January 13, 2014

A few other factors should be considered in this U.S. carbon leakage debate.  Yes, U.S. coal exports have increased and total production has also decreased.  And yes, natural gas consumption and associated carbon emission have increased since 2007, but only about 1/5th the level of reduced coal consumption carbon emissions.  This is why coal-to-natural gas fuels switching is the No.1 contributing factor to reduced U.S. carbon emissions in recent years.  And agreed, the current Administration’s policies had small impact 2007-2012 beyond developing more restrictive stack emissions standards and effectively shutting down future new coal power capacity.  The major factor to reduced coal power in recent years has overwhelmingly been due to the lower cost domestic natural gas.

Also note that U.S. coal imports have declined in recent years.  The majority of these imports, however, are metallurgical grade coal/coke.  The decline in U.S. steel production since the 2007-2009 economic recession and increased China imports (refer to Figure 8) is illustrative of carbon leakage outside the U.S. as a result of the weak recovery of the overall economy and this segment of the manufacturing sector.  The same carbon leakage also applies to most goods and commodities imported into the U.S.  The only good sign recently has been a drop in the U.S.’s trade deficit in recent years.  

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on January 13, 2014

This is an important point. Well-intended reductions in coal use in the developed world (be it through efficiency, gas or renewables) is helping to fuel the rapid buildout of coal-fired industries in the developing world that will be burning coal for at least 40 years into the future. This is one of the reasons why I think large-scale CCS is inevitable. It is the only low-carbon technology that is immune from the rebound effect. 

Another important factor in carbon accounting that is often just ignored is the import/export of manufactured goods. For example, if a country’s carbon footprint was calculated based on what it actually consumes instead of what it produces, emissions in most of the western world would increase by about 20%, while chinese emissions would decrease by about 20% (see this report for example). By this measure (which I think is a much fairer reflection) the US is still a greater CO2 emitter than China. 

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 13, 2014

Schalk,

I agree with you on these points. However I am unconvinced this makes CCS inevitable. Certainly, CCS is preferable from an international rebound effect perspective. But what are the chances that politicians will consider such things? Offshoring of emissions remains a taboo. Academics discuss it, and occasionally campaigners try to make the issue more prominent, but it generally goes nowhere. And it is very hard to see how this will change. China’s economic growth rests in large part to selling cheap stuff to rich countries. Any serious attempt to switch to consumption based emissions measures will disrupt this. Who wants this to happen? Certainly not the people selling cheap stuff to the rich world, and certainly not the people buying this cheap stuff. We’ll just keep looking away.

We would also somehow need to attach a value to this benefit of CCS. Given the gamut of views on the rebound effect, is there any prospect politicians could agree that CCS worth $X/MWh extra on the basis of rebound? I sincerely doubt it.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 13, 2014

John

Metallurgical coke is a good example of these issues. 

The US is undergoing a long term transition from blast furnaces to electric arc furnaces. Strangely I have come across people talking about this as a switch from inefficient steel making to efficient steel making. Instead of course it is a shift from primary steel making (blast furnaces) to just recycling old steel (electric arc furnaces). Electric arc furnaces now represent 60% of US steel production, compared with less than 10% of China’s. This gives the US a big advantage over China. It can supply a lot of its steel with low energy input scrap steel conversions.

But it raises a rather obvious problem. The entire planet needs about 1.5 billion tonnes of steel each year, a figure that is likely to rise for at least 50 years. Prospects of inventing “low carbon” primary steel production look exceedingly low. Thus if you were to equitably divide up a global carbon budget you should really compensate poor countries for their lack of scrap steel lying around to be recycled.

This however is perhaps getting a little off-topic.

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on January 13, 2014

Does anyone think the Obama adminisitration is interested, much less in a position to be able to be interested, in a serious climate policy?  That is not a rhetorical question.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on January 14, 2014

It is clear that CCS will be the last resort climate change mitigation mechanism that we implement. My point was just that the preferred climate change mitigation measures (especially wind and solar) will only lock in fossil fuel infrastructure and shift coal burning from one region of the world to another. In other words, the rebound effect faced by most climate change mitigation measures increases the likelihood that we will have to call on the last resort technology that directly adresses this effect sooner rather than later.

About the offshoring of emissions, I agree that it is politically challenging to change this convention. However, if I was a Chinese representative at a COP conference, this effect, together with the issue of historical emissions, would be the first arguments I would use to block any Chinese CO2 emission cuts demanded by other nations. 

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 14, 2014

Schalk

It’s very hard to see why China would want something like this. What do they gain from it?

Somehow we split up Chinese emissions into “China” and “rest of the world.” This leaves us with about a 80:20 split. The benefits for China here are dubious. This 20% will still need to be cut, regardless of how you define them. In fact putting them on the rich world’s books is probably going to make things even worse for China. Put those 20% on the rich world’s books and you are more likely to have carbon prices etc., or even more drastically caps on imports based on embedded emissions. (Not that I put this forward as a credible prospect given where we are). Keeping these emissions on China’s books however let’s the rich world look away and China continue to run primarily on coal.

I could be persuaded that I am wrong, but I still don’t see the motivation for China to want its exported emissions on someone else’s books.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on January 14, 2014

This is an interesting issue. As I see it, the choice is between higher local energy prices (if China keeps all emissions on its own books) or reduced demand for exports (if a substantial part of emissions is transferred to the books of other nations). Given that China is trying its best to steer its economy towards an internal consumption driven growth model, I think higher energy prices will hurt significantly more than reduced demand for exports. 

If China can transfer all of the historical export emissions to the books of other nations, it can negotiate much more relaxed greenhouse gas emissions targets starting at next year’s COP in Paris. Personally, I think it would be in China’s benefit to use such argumentation to keep energy prices as low as possible during it’s perilous journey around the middle income trap while fuelling internal consumption and diversification in local industry and commerce.  

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 14, 2014

Schalk

I would be very surprised if historic export emissions ever became part of the COP process. Historical emissions are probably never going to be part of a deal period. Historical attribution runs into a wall of problems, and I cannot see how you can divide up a future carbon budget based on historic emissions. Is per capita historical emissions what should be used or just national? And you run into very obvious human rights problems. Is it fair that Britain has a far lower share of future carbon emissions than South Korea purely because it industrialised far, far earlier? These questions seem unresolvable.

A second problem with China is that you are assuming it will have no intention of reneging on its agreements. First I find it unlikely the Communist party will agree to a binding emissions target in the first place. But a key issue here is that it cannot renege on the 20% of emissions that supposedly will be labelled “rich world.” Reaching an agreement purely on the basis of China’s national emissions gives China the chance of walking away a few years later. And walking away from these agreements is not exactly difficult, look at Canada and Japan.

And again, another problem. What if China makes an agreement to cut emissions, but with emissions on a consumption not a national basis, and then walks away? Surely the whole accounting mechanism would lose all credibility over night.

The preferable thing appears to be a carbon tax with border adjustment. This helps to stop carbon leakage to countries with a looser climate policy. But again, very few people are advocating this.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on January 14, 2014

I think this conversation is a good example of just how difficult it will be to draw up a global emissions agreement. The more I think about this, the more I am forced to hope that climate sensitivity is much lower than the current scientific consensus. 

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 16, 2014

John

Your comment does not seem to address a single argument in the piece. Now, I know your job is to promote natural gas, but please actually make an effort to deal with the arguments.

The piece is about whether coal exports may have offset a significant portion of the emissions saved by shale gas. The evidence seems to indicate that they have. Do you agree or disagree with me on the point?

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 16, 2014

John

This is now four comments and not a word of it has addressed anything in the piece. Are you simply deliberately wasting my time?

You complain that US coal exports have nothing to do with US emissions. Do you not realise that the piece seeks to deconstruct the meaning of the phrase “US emissions”? The point was made at length, which suggests to me you have not actually bothered reading the piece before commenting.

In summary, you don’t like the piece but cannot be bothered to explain why. This is behaviour that does you no credit.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 16, 2014

And John,

Do not try to tell me you have no financial interested in shale gas. After all your profile here says 

“We also have expertise in getting gas into the grid and look forward to shale gas.”

The idea that you promote natural gas because of an attachment to the planet is rather dubious, is it not.

Davis Swan's picture
Davis Swan on January 17, 2014

This article and associated debate just reinforces in my mind the fact that we (the world) do not have a credible plan when it comes to transitioning to a sustainable energy environment. 

Germany pumps 10’s of billions into solar panels that produce 1/5th as much energy in winter as they do in summer.  And peak demand in Germany is in the winter.  So what should they do – build out 5x the required capacity and deal with 5x too much in the summer?  Not economically feasible, not logical. 

All over the world roof-top solar is subsidized when this is a completely nutty way to develop solar.  Rooftop solar panels are time-consuming and dangerous to install (http://www.fairwarning.org/2010/10/solar-installers-death-points-to-job-...),  difficult to maintain, and not installed at the optimal angle.

Wind production receives billions in subsidies while companies that are developing the storage technology needed to ultimately make wind successful get a few million before they go bankrupt.

There are Feed-In-Tarriffs at peak retail rates for PV solar but not for production from storage which can be matched to demand patterns.

Demand Response programs, where they exist, are sometimes not even used because they “might inconvenience customers” who signed up with the understanding that they should be inconvenienced for the greater good (and who get discounted power for their sacrifice).

And as stated, we wage a war on coal within North America while increasing exports to overseas destinations.

This is not a plan.  This is a random walk to various and sundry politically correct policy destinations with no idea as to what the overall impact is. 

There are things we can do with a concerted, focused, results-oriented approach.  I have described some of the action items in my Sustainable Energy Manifesto (http://www.theblackswanblog.com/blog1/?p=152)

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 17, 2014

Davis

I would appreciate if you could direct your comments at the actual contents of the piece, not simply use it as an opportunity to make general remarks about renewable energy (the post was about shale gas after all) and to advertise your own blog.

Robert

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on January 17, 2014

Robert, yours is a useful analysis.  However, it would seem that when scrutinizing whether shale gas has reduced US carbon emissions you have to account for fugative methane.  Leakage has always been a problem in the NG supply chain but these enhanced extraction methods associated with shale result in large amounts of excaped gas.  There is a huge debate going on regarding what those levels are, but even the industry admits it is ~3%.  

This may seem inconsequential to some, but given that methane 26 times more potent that CO2 as a greenhouse gas, these leaks alone more than negate any savings that might acrrue from a shift away from coal.  Is there a reason not to include this issue?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 17, 2014

Robert, this is yet another compelling piece of evidence in favor of the concept of a revenue-neutral carbon tax, assessed at the source.

While there are few hard and fast rules which can be drawn in the world of energy, there is at least one: once fossil fuels are extracted from the ground, they will be burned. There is not a single example of a post-extraction carbon tax or trading scheme which has resulted in lower emissions, and until we come up with some kind of universal formula for taxing carbon at the wellhead and at the mineshaft, any effort to stabilize atmospheric carbon will be doomed to failure.

Perhaps the reason this type of fee-and-dividend arrangement has been so studiously ignored is for the very reason that it would be difficult to circumvent. Whereas geoengineering and CCS set us up for failure, B.C.’s program is proof that a proactive carbon policy can work – and the details are not difficult.

What will be difficult is mustering the political will and creating a global framework to make it happen. There are simply not a lot of other good options.

Ron Wagner's picture
Ron Wagner on January 17, 2014

Yes it has lowered CO2 emissions, but far more importantly it has reduced REAL pollution such as particlulates, sulfur, mercury etc. by replacing coal.    See: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NwglGIAHP9lCTGgmUxz7sD5l1qUQqN3o0Iww...

Ron Wagner's picture
Ron Wagner on January 17, 2014

Yes it has lowered CO2 emissions, but far more importantly it has reduced REAL pollution such as particlulates, sulfur, mercury etc. by replacing coal.    See: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NwglGIAHP9lCTGgmUxz7sD5l1qUQqN3o0Iww...

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on January 17, 2014

Well Wilson, if believed your underlying hysterical assumption that “we’re-all-going-to-die-from-that-evil- trace-gas-CO2”, I might be concerned about your carbon emissions argument. However, the scientific models upon which your case rests have not been validated nor verified and are unable to predict what is actually transpiring on the planet. As such, there is no compelling reason to panic.

If the lads producing coal want to make money by selling their product off-shore, that is fine by me, particularly if a country wants to use the energy to better the lot of their citizens.

Robert Cormia's picture
Robert Cormia on January 17, 2014

CO2 emissions are spinning out of control, and the planet *is* continuing to warm, with three or four of the warmest years on record in the last decade. Northern California has seen 70 degree weather for three days straight and is in the wost drought in 100 years (actually the worst on record). Just read Hansen’s paper on Assessing Dangerous Climate Change in PLOS. We don’t have the science awareness and even less will to alter our trajectory in changing the GHG composition of the atmosphere, which acts as a biogeochemical thermostat. Thanks for publishing the yearly emission numbers, they are sobering indeed.

Davis Swan's picture
Davis Swan on January 17, 2014

Fair comment and please accept my apology.  I don’t seem able to delete the comment – I would if I could.   I was reacting to the comments and not the post.  Thanks for a very good analysis.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on January 18, 2014

This issue with fugative methane, along with the issue of the sheer amount of energy and water required in the fracking process are very important. 

Energy used in the process over and above that used for conventional gas extraction appears to be ignored in favour of simply counting the CO2 emissions at combustion! Truth is that the two issues compound so that if the extra energy needed in fracking is equal to 20% of the energy in the gas, you have to multiply the fugitive methane figure proportionally!

Further, if very large amounts of water are sequestered underground rather than supporting plant growth, one of the mechanisms of natural CO2 removal is made less effective!

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Clifford

The reason I did not look at fugitive emissions was because the piece was about coal exports. Plus I did not want a discussion about the important issues raised in the piece to be de-railed by arguments over fugitive emissions, which are a separate issue.

Gary Tulie's picture
Gary Tulie on January 18, 2014

The relative value of solar depends on location. 

Take the example of Kenya – the current Kenyan power supply is dominated by hydro which is a problem as in dry years, power production falls far short of demand. 

To solve this issue, Kenya is very aggressively targeting solar, wind, and geothermal power each of which it can potentially generate in abundance at relatively favourable costs, the last of which can provide base load power supply. 

When the wind blows and the sun shines, water can stay behind the hydro dams – to be released when sun, wind and geothermal power are not available in sufficient abundance. A mixed renewable based generation system therefore gives greater resiliance and a more reliably available power supply than would otherwise be available without the country being at fiscal risk from unpredictable fossil fuel generation prices. 

Regarding the issue of rooftop solar – True, accidents do take place, usually when someone fails to observe best safety practive. True also, orientation and pitch are often sub optimal and the panels run warmer than ground mounted, however the advantages of rooftop are 

1. Generation is closer to power usage.

2. For the owner, solar displaces electricity purchased at retail rather than feeding into the grid at wholesale value.

3. Often rooftop solar can be accommodated without modifications to the grid. 

4. Rooftop solar does not take up any additional land either for solar farms, or for power line transmission corridors. 

It should be remembered that conventional generation is not risk free, and that many people die “silently” as a result of pollution some of which derives from fossil fuel extraction and use for power generation.

(Whilst this is slightly off topic, current figures would seem to indicate that if you live in a large city, you are more likely to be killed indirectly by vehicle pollution aggrevating or triggering medical conditions than you are to be killed in a vehicle accident. Power generation using fossil fuels presents many of the same hidden indirect risks)

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Willem

I have complained to you about this multiple times. Can you please get my name correct?

And please make an effort to not only get my name correct, but also tailor your comments to the piece, instead of a badly edited general piece. I also don’t think it’s necessary for you to write CO2 emissions in 2006 in one line, then those in 2007 in another, all the way to 2012. This stuff is a real distraction from serious discussion on the site.

And again, no link bombing please. Or perhaps you imagine a piece you have written about the capital costs of Germany’s Energiewende is of great relevance to my piece, which was about US shale gas and coal exports.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on January 18, 2014

I respect your article, but i happen to agree with Clifford that this is a glaring omission in your analysis. It cannot be left out of the story simply to avoid controversy. That in itself creates a controversy.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on January 18, 2014

I respect the article, but there is a very important element you’ve omitted. The issue of fugitive methane in the extraction and distribution of fracked gas is key. This alone negates most if not all of the greenhouse load “savings” of gas over coal. This cannot be omitted in a story on this topic. It is critical.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on January 18, 2014

Denial of science is getting old and tired, man.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on January 18, 2014

Yes. We can and must create a carbon tax. We can start at the state or federal levels in the U.S.  We can include border policies that encourage all trading partners to pass their own carbon taxes.

A carbon tax must be serious in terms of the taxation level. It also must not work against the poor. That that end, the revenue could be used to lower taxation on work, as well as sales of hard goods.  These two offsets will stimulate job growth and U.S. manufacturing and sales.  The economy will do well, and will transition to a cleaner form.

 

We can do it. We need to begin now. We need the political will. It is possible but only when if we are determined. We need to convince 350.org for example to pursue this policy instead of solely their divestment campaign, which is not actually effective in fiscal terms. A carbon tax works.  See British Columbia, Ireland, and other examples.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Sage

You comment “This cannot be omitted in a story on this topic.” I see no reason why it cannot. The piece is not attempting to take a general view of the issue of shale gas reducing emissions. Instead it is isolating the issue of carbon production versus carbon consumption. If my main purpose is to discuss coal exports then I don’t see the point in distracting from this with a parallel discussion about fugitive emissions.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on January 18, 2014

John Baldwin,  if one takes a reasonable estimate of fugitive methane from fracking of shale gas, one finds that there is very little, if any, advantage of gas over coal in terms of greenhouse gas load.   I know you will counter this, and there are gas-industry-funded studies that say the opposite, but there are independently-funded studies that support what i am saying.

Sage Radachowsky's picture
Sage Radachowsky on January 18, 2014

Robert, thank you for your reply. In a piece titled “Has shale gas really reduced US carbon emissions?”, i think this issue must at least be mentioned.   I don’t think you need to focus on it, or allow it to distract from your main thesis. I agree with your main thesis, and i thank you wholeheartedly for writing this article. But to me, omission of even a mention of fugitive methane’s effect on whether gas is better than coal for greenhouse emissions per unit of energy is a problem. You do include, in a brief “digression” as you call it, this statement:

Gas power plants emit approximately half as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity, therefore emissions have declined.

This statement is actually wrong in substance, if you figure the effect of fugitive methane. I mean, semantically, it is correct, but in spirit, you and i both know that what matters is total greenhouse gas load in the atmosphere, and this statement in its context implies that gas is a savings over coal in terms of total greenhouse gas load. Therefore, i find it misleading, and not good practice for the role of journalism in creating an informed citizenry who can then make political decisions.

But othewrwise, thank you for an insightful article.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on January 18, 2014

Understood, and maybe you can do the accounting in another piece – it deserves the light of day.  Regardless, it would have been useful to mention it as a factor in the NG/coal debate.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on January 18, 2014

Sage, you and I agree on the significance of the omission (see below) but I respect Robert’s right to focus.

You wrote, “Gas power plants emit approximately half as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity, therefore emissions have declined.”

Not exactly.  From a chemical to heat perspective it’s only 44% less.  But when producing electricity, the efficiency of the thermodynalic cycle becomes inportant.  Combined cycle gas plants can reach conversion efficiencies approaching 60%, which is significantly better that the typical effociency of a coal plant at 33%.  However, it is likely that the icreased gas utilization is going into gas turbine peaker plants which can have effociencies as low as 20%.  A lot depends on the vintage of the turbine and its inlet temperature since they do better in cold weather and worse during the summer when there is peak demand.

Maybe we have sufficiently encouraged Robert to address these issues in a sequel.

 

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Willem

Frankly this is getting ridiculous. I wrote a piece about US coal exports and you responded by linking a piece on capital costs of the Energiewende. I complain about this irrelevant citation, and you respond by telling me how much electricity German solar panels and wind turbines produced in 2013. 

Next up you will be giving me a history of the diesel engine in response to a piece about Chinese cement consumption because the history of the diesel engine is relevant to the CO2 problem.

Is it really difficult to stay on topic?

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Sage

This is getting silly. The piece is not titled “Has shale gas really reduced US carbon emissions?” it is titled “Has shale gas really reduced US carbon emissions? The problem of coal exports”.

Did you not manage to read the entire title? The subject matter of the piece should be clear to anyone who reads it. However, an iron law of internet discussion is that there is always someone who wants to change the subject.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

“You guys”. You could of course look through what I have written about nuclear energy, but thanks anyway for your prejudiced comments. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on January 18, 2014

The observations are based on logic and science. Suggest you periodically re-evaluate your advocacy of “catastrophic climate change” in light of on-going work that demonstrates the ever widening uncertainty in long range forecasts. The affects of natural variability are more than originally assumed. As such, attributing significant changes in the climate solely to increases in CO2 is problematic. Further, assuming a belief in “catastrophic climate change”, then renewable energy is just a poor solution. Using energy more wisely (better efficiency in production and use) is a superior solution because CO2 is meaningfully reduced AND folks have more money in their pockets, which improves the economic lot of all. The same cannot be said for renewable energy, which needlessly increases energy costs.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Willem

Your comments simply grow more and more frustrating. If you believe that the article should have been connected to the cost of emission reduction then you should make a comment linking the issue of shale gas and coal exports to costs of emissions reduction. How difficult would it be to do this? Instead you come along and complain about things I did not touch on in the piece, including the costs of German Energiewende. Frankly if I sat down and thought “What would Willem Post want in this piece?” I would probably need to write a multi-volume book, based on your comments here.

What I am trying to do here is isolate particular issues and discuss them. This is a piece about shale gas and coal exports, not one about fugitive emisions, or for that matter the costs of Germany’s Energiewende . You however seem to think everything is fair game. Please try to understand how frustrating this is for me, and other commenters on the site who actually want to discuss the issues raised in the piece, not be involved in a complete free for all.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Michael

I presume you are responding to a straw man environmentalist, without actually bothering to look up my views on any of these subjects. Again, thanks for the prejudiced comments. 

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on January 18, 2014

The aeroderivative peaking machines (e.g. GE LMS 100 and LM 6000 series) have efficiencies of over 40%. The heavy duty machines (when used as peakers) typically have effciencies north of about 35%

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on January 18, 2014

Your welcome.!

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on January 18, 2014

Willem,you wrote, Some commenters brought up fugitive methane, which, IMHO, is a red herring, as Nature’s “fugitive” methane is many orders of magnitude greater than man-made quantities.”

Why would you make such a patently false statement?  It’s a sure-fire way to lose credibility. 

Globally, over 60% of total CH4 emissions come from human activities. The largest component of those inputs is from the natural gas and petroleum industries.  See: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html  Please read it before commenting further on methane releases.  If you need further insight, please review “Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Natural Sources”  http://www.epa.gov/outreach/pdfs/Methane-and-Nitrous-Oxide-Emissions-Fro...

 

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Discussion in the comments section has gone totally off topic. The piece is about US coal exports, not fugitive emissions.

As I observed at the end of the piece energy debates too often resolve themselves into vacuous pro/anti debates. Here again we have another example. Some people oppose/support fracking, but have little interest in the coal exports issue, so will just try to change the subject to the reasons they oppose/support fracking.

On topic comments from now on please.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 18, 2014

Willem

These numbers show that you have made an erroneous statement about methane emissions. Perhaps you could acknowledge this instead of just repeating statistics.

And now you are de-railing the conversation again by suggesting we should return to a population of one billion. Each time I complain about you going off topic you respond by going off topic. This feels like the myth of Sisyphus.

Clifford Goudey's picture
Clifford Goudey on January 18, 2014

Willem, it’s not the number of people on the planet that I worry about, it’s the number of Luddites who are unable think critically or admit when they are wrong. 

Have you done the assigned reading?  I didn’t think so.  So instead of digging yourself a bigger hole, take the time to learn a little something about a topic before pretending to be an expert.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on January 19, 2014

Willem

As I said before this is totally ridiculous. If I ask you to stay on topic you respond by going further off topic.

I have written about US shale gas and coal exports. Here are a list of things you have touched on in your comments:

– things that many people do not know about the causes of climate change

– average temperature in the last 17 years

– capital costs of Germany’s Energiewende

– how many TWhs of electricity German wind and solar produce

– how much global carbon emissions were in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2001. Even listing each figure.

– how we should reduce global population to 1800 levels

– a brief discussion of why you are not a “Luddite”

– a brief discussion of global fertility trends

Almost all of this came after I pleaded that you stay on topic.

Please do not respond to my latest pleading that you stay on topic by going even further off topic.

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