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Not all fossil fuels are created equally — at least with respect to their carbon footprint.
The good news is the United States has been transitioning to less carbon-intensive fossil fuels. The bad news is that neither the media nor environmentalists seem to care.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), burning coal produces between 205.7 and 228.6 pounds of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (BTUs) of energy.
Diesel fuel and heating oil produce 161.3 pounds of CO2 per million BTUs, while gasoline comes in at 157.2 and propane at 139.0.
Natural gas is the clear winner: 117 pounds/million BTUs – nearly half that of coal.
So if the policy goal is to reduce carbon emissions while ensuring the country has the energy it needs, we would be using more natural gas and less coal. And that’s exactly what’s happening – thanks to innovation and the free market.
The EIA points out that in the late 1980s coal was responsible for nearly 60 percent of U.S. electricity generation, while natural gas registered about 10 percent.
By 2016, natural gas was up to 33 percent and coal was down to 32 percent.
As a result, U.S. carbon emissions for the first six months of 2016 declined to their lowest point since 1991, when there were 70 million fewer Americans.
When all greenhouse gas emissions are included, we’re still at the lowest point since 1993.
The big driver behind the emissions decline was innovation and the market.
The U.S. had peaked on natural gas production until the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which vastly expanded the country’s retrievable natural gas resources. As production increased, supplies grew and the price of gas (naturally) declined. As power plants began shifting to natural gas, carbon emissions dropped.
But there’s more. Not all crude oil is created equally either. There is heavy, bituminous crude oil that comes from California and Canada. And there’s light sweet crude, which is much less carbon-intensive.
The fracking process, which allows producers to extract crude oil from deep shale formations, now accounts for 52 percent of U.S. crude oil production. That shale oil has a lower carbon footprint than tar sands oil.
Thus, to the extent that fracking can increase access to natural gas and light crude oil, U.S. carbon emissions should continue to decline.
Ironically, instead of cheering these trends, environmentalists deplore them, doing all they can to encourage state legislatures and city councils to limit or prohibit fracking – even though only 14 states actually have a significant amount of fracking, according to Governing Magazine.
The problem is that clean energy sources pushed by environmentalists – wind, solar, biomass – can only replace a small amount of energy (about 7 percent) needed to drive our electricity-generating plants. And they have almost no impact on cars, trucks, and heavy equipment.
Clean energy cannot replace fossil fuels today, and probably won’t for decades – if then.
Thus the nation’s policy should be to support “bridge fuels” – i.e., cleaner burning fossil fuels – made possible by fracking. Environmentalists used to acknowledge the need for bridge fuels, but most no longer do. They see all fossil fuels as created equally, which is manifestly – and scientifically – incorrect.
The U.S. has made more progress cutting its carbon footprint than nearly all of the countries that criticize us. We’ve done it by embracing innovation and the free market.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow at twitter.com/MerrillMatthews.