Earth Day is coming up on Sunday, and environmentalists have much cause for celebration this year when it comes to U.S. emissions reductions.
The latest Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have declined 13 percent since 2005, while overall greenhouse gas emissions are at their lowest levels since 1992. EPA data also show emissions of three air pollutants responsible for millions of deaths worldwide — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter — have also plummeted since 2005.
The environmental movement has been striving to achieve these kinds of reductions ever since the first Earth Day debuted way back in 1970. But ironically, if the “keep it in the ground” groups behind many of Sunday’s Earth Day events had their druthers, the fuel largely responsible for these emission declines would be eliminated altogether.
Numerous reputable third party experts — including the International Energy Agency (IEA), U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — agree that increased use of clean burning natural gas deserves the bulk of the credit for America’s declining emissions. Still, “keep it in the ground” activists continue to not only call for fracking bans, but the elimination of fossil fuel use altogether.
This extreme agenda is simply not supported by the science.
Bolstered by fuel switching to natural gas in the power sector, the United States has led all major industrialized countries in carbon reductions this century. The EIA released a report late last year that shows natural gas has prevented over 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted since 2005, noting that natural gas’ share of power sector related carbon reductions is 72 percent greater than renewables and other non-carbon sources during that time-span.
Many extreme voices in the environmental movement argue that methane emissions from natural gas development effectively negate the obvious carbon reductions from natural gas. But the latest EPA data show that natural gas systems methane emissions have declined 3.5 percent since 2005, while overall methane emissions have declined as well.
In other words, natural gas’ climate benefits are crystal clear. And its contribution to reducing deadly air pollution is just as significant.
IEA has noted that air pollution is responsible for 6.5 million deaths annually, identifying sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter as the three pollutants “responsible for the most widespread impacts…”
Fortunately, the United States has some of the lowest death rates from air pollution in the world, which can be traced directly to the fact that all three of these pollutants have declined dramatically since the shale gas revolution began.
Natural gas emits far less nitrogen oxide than other traditional fuels, and emits virtually no sulfur dioxide and fine particulate matter. This prompted Stanford University physicist Richard Muller to state in 2013 that, “Shale gas is a wonderful gift that has arrived just in time. It can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce a deadly pollution known as PM2.5 that is currently killing over three million people each year, primarily in the developing world.”
The shale gas revolution has also allowed the United States to grow its economy while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions — an unprecedented trend — and to do so without government intervention. While countries such as Germany have struggled to reduce emissions even with government-mandated renewable energy targets, the United States is leading the world in carbon reductions despite not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, failing to pass cap-and-trade legislation and repealing the Clean Power Plan. United Nations Energy Programme Chief Erik Solheim has even said, “In all likelihood, the United States will live up to its Paris commitment, not because of the White House, but because of the private sector.”
The fact that natural gas is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and literally saving lives would seem to be a development worth celebrating on Earth Day. The fact that the “keep it in the ground” movement will likely do the opposite shows how extreme and misguided that movement truly is.
Seth Whitehead is team lead of Energy In Depth, an education, research and public outreach campaign sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.