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Monday, September 7, 2009

Gas & Coal in current U.S. legislation

As U.S. legislators work out the new energy/climate change bill, 2 different fossil fuel industries have much to gain or lose.  Today's NY Times has an article on natural gas appearing to get the losing end of the stick compared to the coal industry.  The debate to some extent centers on which of these resources will be better in the long run for reducing carbon emissions and for maintaining a long term, economically stable energy source.


The U.S. certainly has a lot more coal reserves than natural gas, and for this reason could be seen as a more stable long-term fuel.  However, coal is without a doubt a bigger source of pollution than natural gas, whether it be carbon dioxide, compounds that cause acid rain, or toxic metals such as mercury, lead, or cadmium.  The article does not point out this fact well enough in my opinion.  It is estimated, for example, that nearly 40% of U.S. mercury emissions come from coal-fired power plants (ref).  Further, the article does not point out well enough the additional environmental harm that coal mining causes over natural gas, such as mountain top removal and strip mining.


One other disturbing point made by the article includes: 
      "Utilities that burn natural gas would earn $30 billion over 10 years in pollution credits that could be sold on the carbon-trading market. But utilities that burn coal will receive tens of billions of dollars worth of free pollution credits, savings that will be passed on to consumers but may serve to delay the closing of some coal plants."  
It would appear that Congress is not attempting to provide a fair & level playing field for the two commodities.  While natural gas can "earn" pollution credits, coal simply gets them for free.  


The article further points out that if Congress were to not pass this bill, natural gas as a power source in the U.S. will likely grow by 30%, which coal growing at only 7%.  With the new legislation being considered, however, the EPA projects that electricity generation from gas would increase by less than 1%.