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Natural Gas Helps Drop GHG Emissions to 1992 Levels

If you've been following the news on air emissions, and who hasn't, you know that there have been a host of positive developments, the most notable of which is that our nation's emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen to a 20-year low.

CO2 picture

Associated Press reporter Kevin Begos drew attention this week  to what has been an encouraging turn. The United States has dropped carbon dioxide emissions to its lowest level since 1992. Here's the lead to his August 16 story.

"In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal."

Begos goes on to write:

"Many of the world's leading climate scientists didn't see the drop coming, in large part because it happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action against carbon dioxide."

First some detail: The U.S. Energy Information Agency, the independent statistical arm of the Department of Energy, said this month that energy related U.S. CO2 emissions for the first four months of this year fell to 1992 levels, Begos writes. Energy emissions make up about 98 percent of total emissions.

To be sure, there are several contributing factors for this, a warm winter across most of the United States reduced energy use and an economy that is still getting back on its feet may be playing a role. But there is one factor that has an undeniable and direct role and that's the greater use of natural gas.

Over the last four years, use of natural gas, particularly in power generation has been steadily rising. In fact, in April, for the first time ever, natural gas plants pulled even with coal as the largest providers of U.S. electricity, according to EIA.

And it isn't just EIA, or the Associated Press that have noticed. Ceres, an environmental investment network, examined U.S. power plant emissions from the top 100 power producers and found that emissions of a whole range of pollutants have dropped by nearly one-third from 2008 to 2010.

One of Ceres' key findings is that in 2010, power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) were both 68 percent lower than they were in 1990. From 2008 to 2010, SO2 emissions fell by 32 percent and NOx emissions fell by 31 percent as the sector shifted away from coal.

Ceres' President Mindy Luber described the report's findings and noted the increased use of natural gas saying:

"This is an historic transition for the electric power industry. More and more power producers are shifting away from coal-fired generation in favor of lower-emitting natural gas-fired plants, renewable power and energy efficiency.  The economic case for cleaner energy is better than it's ever been, and this report shows that the industry is adapting to stronger Clean Air Act emissions standards, state-driven efficiency and renewable energy incentives and the dynamics of the current natural gas market."

With safe and responsible natural gas development, we do not have to choose between powering our communities and protecting our environment. We can have both.  Thanks to our abundance of supply at affordable prices, the use of natural gas is on the rise and we are seeing the environmental benefits.

The Ceres report is available in its entirety here.

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