By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

It’s The Extraction, Not The Emissions, That Matters

By Jeff Danner Posted December 1, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Since personal obligations have kept me busy this week over Thanksgiving, I will not be publishing the conclusion of the “Sudden Cardiac Arrest” series until December 8th. This week, I am reprising a column from September, 2012, with this new introduction, which I hope will help to shed some light on two recent, but seemingly contradictory news stories. In 2013, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States were down by 3.7% compared to 2012. In stark contrast, gloggbal emissions, at a staggering 10 billion tons, were 2.1% higher than in 2012.

Coal_Burning_Power_Plant_Smoke_StacksAs I explained in “If We Mine it or Drill it, We’re Going to Burn It,” news stories which focus on carbon emissions are inherently misleading. Since the air in the atmosphere is all mixed together, it does not matter from which country the emissions originate. The parameter that truly matters is the rate at which we are extracting carbon, in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas, from below the ground.

The widespread utilization of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) combined with horizontal drilling in the U.S. has resulted in a significant increase in extraction of natural gas. Natural gas is difficult and expensive to export, so nearly all of this increased supply is being burned in domestic power plants to make electricity. As more electricity in the U.S. is being generated from natural gas, the amount produced by burning coal is decreasing. Generating an equivalent amount of electricity from natural gas rather than coal releases less carbon dioxide. Therefore, the shift towards natural gas for electricity production in the U.S. is the primary reason that carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. have been reduced. As nice as this may sound, it doesn’t really matter.

To understand why it doesn’t matter, one need look no further than Appalachia, the heart of the U.S. coal mining industry, rumors of whose death have been greatly exaggerated. Despite the loss of a portion of the electricity market, U.S. coal extraction is at an all-time high. Since coal is easy to transport, it is being shipped all over the world, particularly China and India, to generate electricity there.

The end result of the natural gas “boom” from fracking and the increase in coal exports is an increase in the extraction of underground carbon from the U.S. This is the story that matters about the U.S. contribution to carbon dioxide emissions and global warming. We are making it worse, not better.

For more detail and the underlying science, follow the link above to my previous column. If you have a comment or question use the interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

Comments box goes here.

Leave a Comment

Recent Articles

More Lifestyle