Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Environmental Benefits of Gas, part 1

Given that shale drilling is industrial activity that must be professionally, independently regulated to limit impacts to the environment and increase its safety, there is appropriately substantial focus on the risks it poses. Yet, there should be equal focus on how natural gas can powerfully clean our air and water and save lives.

America now gets about 45% of its electricity from burning coal, and unfortunately 100,000 megawatts or one-third of the nation's coal plants are 40 years old or older with few or no controls to prevent pollution that sickens and kills tens of thousands every year.  The USA also uses oil for about 90% of its transportation fuel and approximately 70% of that oil is imported (see post CNG: Saving $1.85 per Gallon).  Those are today's facts.

Coal and oil are dirtier fuels than natural gas and cause more environmental and human health damage in their production and combustion than gas.  One-out-of control oil well killed eleven workers, devastated the environment of the Gulf, and damaged substantially its recreation, tourism and fishing industries.  No gas well could do that kind of damage, though it could be lethal to workers.

Producing and burning coal and oil releases more pollutants like mercury, soot, heat trapping gas, and others.  Let's look at just mercury.

One out of six American women have "elevated" levels of mercury, according to the Center for Disease Control.  "Elevated" means that a woman with those levels of mercury risks lowering the IQ of any baby she has.

And how did so many American women get elevated levels of mercury in them? Burning coal in the USA and around the world caused it.

Coal plants put large amounts of mercury into the environment, and mercury is now in the food chain, specifically fish and increasingly birds.  Eating fish contaminated by mercury from coal plants is the primary cause of elevated mercury levels in American women. 

Natural gas emits essentially zero mercury.  One more time: Natural gas emits zero mercury.

This is not an argument that natural gas is perfect and has zero impact on the environment.  It is not perfect and does pose risks that demand rigorous regulation.

But compared to the fuels that now run our cars and provide 45% of our electricity, natural gas is considerably cleaner.  Ignoring that truth and not using more natural gas right now would be an environmental disaster.

The oceans of new gas that shale production has created allows substituting it rapidly for coal and oil.  Using more natural gas to reduce oil and coal usage, especially at old, polluting plants, while also accelerating the deployment of renewable technologies and boosting energy conservation, will create millions of jobs and reduce pollution that kills and sickens people.

Gas has impacts and risks but also enormous health and environmental benefits if we use it smartly.


  1. the impacts of mercury have been studied econometrically aswell in terms of the location of coal plants because mercury pollution tends to have a very local distribution from the source (as compared to CO2 which rapidly dissipates and spreads into the global concentration)

  2. I am familiar with some studies looking at the local impacts of mercury pollution. Details on the econometric studies of mercury pollution you mention would be great.