Friday, February 3, 2012

America is Becoming a Natural Gas Powerhouse – And None Too Soon

The End of King Coal – and  Hopefully The End of That Environmental Problem with Fracking

If there is an OPEC for natural gas, The United States might want to join.  If there is not one, The U. S. might want to start one.  Thanks to new technology for freeing natural gas trapped in rock formations, technology that may have huge environmental costs, the U. S. is producing a huge amount of natural gas, and this is having a huge impact on domestic and international energy markets.

The mining and conversion of coal into electrical energy is on the decline, a very good thing.

Regulatory uncertainty and the emergence of alternative fuel sources (natural gas and renewables) will probably make America’s future far less coal-reliant than its past. In 2000 America got 52% of its electricity from coal; in 2010 that number was 45%. Robust as exports are, they account for less than one-tenth of American mined coal; exports cannot pick up the slack if America’s taste for coal declines. Appalachian coal production peaked in the early 1990s; the EIA forecasts a decline for the next three years, followed by two decades of low-level stability. Increased employment and declining productivity suggest that Appalachian coal is getting harder to find.

While coal is highly abundant, it is about the worst source of energy there is.  The environmental impact of mining coal by taking off the top of a mountain and dumping that top into streams and valleys is creating a vast wasteland.  Then coal must be treated to reduce its polluting qualities and then burned, and incomplete combustion produces air pollution.  The waste ash is stored, and can be a huge environmental hazard.

The increased production of natural gas is one of the things dooming coal.  Natural gas burns very cleanly, and it does not have to be treated before it is burned.  It can be transported in pipe lines, and so requires little energy to move it from one place to another.  Natural gas is a much better solution than oil or coal for producing electricity.

The problem with natural gas is that the new technique for drilling, called fracking, has the potential to destroy to water supply in areas where the procedure is taking place.  But given the huge advantage of natural gas over coal and oil, the impetus must be to fix this problem.  And fixing the problem does not mean simply walking away from it.

There will be people who will lament the passing of coal, particularly in Appalachia.  But consider this.

Not A Pretty Picture

A National Academy of Sciences report estimated that the external costs unrelated to climate-change costs (to human health, crop and timber yields, building materials and recreation) of coal-fired power plants in 2005 totalled $62 billion. A study of coal’s effects on Kentucky’s budget in 2006 found that it contributed $528m in revenue, but its on-budget costs—training, support, repairs to the roads, R&D for the coal industry—totaled $643m. A study in West Virginia in 2009 also found the coal industry a net cost to the state.

West Virginia in particular is a beautiful state and it needs to reduce its reliance on coal.  After all, it’s not going to continue forever, and future generations are going to look at the destruction of mountains and valley and streams and ask that unanswerable question, “what were you thinking?"

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