New plans from the EPA call on states to find ways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, in North Carolina, it seems that natural gas production will be the tool to do that.
On June 2, the EPA announced plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030, both through regulations and by calling on states to create their own plans to reduce carbon.
Richard Newell, director of Duke University’s Energy Initiative, said North Carolina has already been on a trend away from coal and nuclear power and toward natural gas and this plan could be the final push.
“If the EPA’s plan becomes final, I suspect natural gas will become an even more significant part of North Carolina’s electricity production,” Newell said.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 30 percent of the electricity in the United States was generated by natural gas in 2012, up from less than 20 percent in 2000.
As natural gas becomes cheaper and more abundant, Newell said meeting other goals to reduce emissions in coal plants becomes easier.
“Because natural gas has come down in cost, coal is looking less competitive,” Newell said. “When government agencies go to propose new policies for plants, it’s easier because producers are already changing coal plants to adjust.”
Natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal — about half as much per KwH — but Newell said this comparison only works when looking at just coal and natural gas.
“Coal has double the carbon emissions as natural gas, but natural gas is also cheaper than renewable energy sources and nuclear power, which all have zero emissions,” he said.
Electric power producers look at market costs and the broader energy policy context when choosing what sources of energy to invest in and Newell said, without any policy pushing non-carbon energy sources, natural gas is mainly competing against coal.
“Depending on what sources of energy natural gas offsets, that will determine how much carbon is kept out of the atmosphere,” he said.
Natural gas mining also allows for methane to escape into the atmosphere. As a reflective greenhouse gas, methane is stronger than carbon dioxide, although it does not last as long.
Environmental groups have also brought up other health concerns associated with natural gas mining besides carbon emissions, like pollution of groundwater and damage to tectonic plates resulting in earthquakes.
Fracking’s impact on the North Carolina environment will also be determined by the regulations set up by the state’s Mining and Energy Commission.
The commission already made the disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking a secret after meeting with mining industry members and the state Senate also made the disclosure of the chemicals a felony, later amending the law to make it a misdemeanor instead.
The Mining and Energy Commission is led by James Womack, a county commissioner in Lee County, thought to contain most of North Carolina’s natural gas, and has been outspoken in his support for fracking in North Carolina, saying that opponents of opening up natural gas mining are arguing based on emotion, not logic or facts.
Womack’s position, as well as the commission’s past actions and other board members with backgrounds in mining, makes the prospect of strong natural gas mining regulation unlikely.