Some Bridge Fuel — Energy Emissions from Methane Surpass Coal, But Oil Emissions Still Rising
Emissions from methane (natural gas) are replacing emissions from coal, but not petroleum (source; click to enlarge).
by Gaius Publius
Methane ("America's clean natural gas") is being touted and sold as the "bridge fuel" from carbon emissions from all sources, including oil. In fact, methane is turning out to be a bridge fuel away from coal only. See the charts at the top and note the rise of emissions from petroleum as methane emissions replace coal emissions.
In the meantime total CO2 emission in the U.S from all sources is essentially flat:
Total U.S. CO2 emissions, 1990–2014 (source; click to enlarge)
Methane may be a bridge fuel from coal, but it's not a bridge to fewer overall emissions, not by a long shot.
This news comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (which is touting methane, by the way):
Energy-related CO2 emissions from natural gas surpass coal as fuel use patterns changeThree points about this announcement.
Energy-associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from natural gas are expected to surpass those from coal for the first time since 1972. Even though natural gas is less carbon-intensive than coal, increases in natural gas consumption and decreases in coal consumption in the past decade have resulted in natural gas-related CO2 emissions surpassing those from coal. EIA's latest Short-Term Energy Outlook projects energy-related CO2 emissions from natural gas to be 10% greater than those from coal in 2016....
In 2015, natural gas consumption was 81% higher than coal consumption, and their emissions were nearly equal. Both fuels were associated with about 1.5 billion metric tons of energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States in 2015.
First, it's good that coal is being used less and less, but coal still has a large emissions footprint, as this 2006 chart shows.
Second, reducing the use of coal is a mixed blessing. Coal emissions (poisonously) contain particulate matter (various kinds of soot, or as scientists say, "aerosols") that in part act to reduce global warming because they tend to reflect some of the sun's energy back into space before it hits the earth and becomes heat. Dr. Michael Mann has a fuller explanation here.
Bottom line, if we don't reduce coal use, Mann estimates we "lock in" +2°C global warming likely in the early 2030s, as atmospheric CO2 reaches 450 ppm. If we (somehow, miraculously) do eliminate coal use, we lock in +2°C global warming as soon as atmospheric CO2 reaches 405 ppm, a level we've already crossed on the monthly chart (source and discussion here). Climate people call the use of coal a "Faustian bargain."
Third, look again at the total emissions chart above. People, especially in government and the energy industry (like the EIA), like to tout the CO2 emissions reduction "since 2005." That reduction was (a) caused almost completely by the global slowdown in economic activity due to the financial crisis that followed, and (b) not much of a reduction, unless you eliminate most of the bottom of the chart to exaggerate the change (as here).
Is It an Emergency Yet?
Yes. For one thing, methane is not a bridge fuel. I'm willing to bet money that no prospective investor in a methane-burning energy facility is being told that the facility will be torn down in 10 years and replaced with something else, like a zero-carbon power plant. On the contrary, I think investors are being told that putting money into new methane (natural gas) infrastructure is a long-term profit-maker. No bridge fuel for us; just the words.
And it probably doesn't hurt the industry's future that Exxon is the "largest natural gas producer in the U.S."
But more to the point, we just don't have the time, even if methane were used as a true bridge fuel. Atmospheric CO2 is accelerating, with 2014 and 2015 being named, successively, "the hottest year on record." Also, the 10 warmest years in the historical record all occurred since 1998. If we don't put the brakes on now — the real brakes, not just the rhetorical ones — it won't matter who's president for the next eight years, Sanders, Trump or Genghis Khan. They'll all be powerless to stop what everyone can see coming and is panicked about.
For more on why a "WWII-style mobilization" is both possible and necessary, see the section "The Zero Carbon Economy, a Rationing Regime that Works" here. To work to build a Mobilize Now awareness, you might start here.