Canada's announcement that it would phase out coal-fired power plants produces a thought experiment. What would US carbon emissions be if gas replaced coal at power plants in the USA?
The Carnegie Mellon University, NETL, and the Worldwatch Institute studies all document that coal emits two times more carbon emissions than gas. Gas is not zero carbon or zero pollution, but it is much cleaner than coal. In fact it emits approximately 50% less carbon on a life cycle basis, in addition to emitting no toxics or soot.
The enormous decrease in carbon emissions that widespread use of gas could provide is startling when one looks at the total US carbon emissions.
In 2010, US coal fired power plants emitted 1,990 million tons of carbon dioxide and that number would have been cut in about half if gas replaced coal. Or gas would cut carbon emissions by about 995 million tons.
Total carbon emissions from the energy sector in the USA during 2010 were 5,636 million tons and that was below the 5,996 million tons emitted in 2005.
Subracting the 995 million tons of avoided carbon emissions by using gas and not coal from the 2010 total would reduce US emissions to 4,641 million tons. A big reduction.
The reduction is so big that widespread use of gas would turn back the carbon clock by more than 30 years. It would cut US energy sector carbon emissions to levels experienced before 1980. Emissions in 1980 were 4,770 million tons. And it would cut carbon emissions about 22% below 2005 levels or 8% below 1990 levels.
These facts are good news, but some must face them. Moreover using gas or electricity more widely in transportation to displace oil would boost the carbon savings produced by gas still further.
Widespread use of gas reduces soot in the air, toxics in the environment, and heat trapping gas in the atmosphere.
Gas production is an industrial business that must be regulated strongly, especially for its air emissions, and taxed reasonably. But gas offers a substantially less polluting alternative to both coal and oil, in addition to providing economic, consumer, and national security benefits.
Denying the fact that gas is much cleaner than coal or oil is false and sacrifices the environment and public health. Insisting that gas is strongly regulated reduces its environmental footprint and maximizes its benefits to the environment.