There’s little doubt the Obama administration’s big push to cut carbon pollution, announced this week, will lead to much less coal-fired power in the United States. That’s a good thing.
But what if states instead turn to natural gas-powered electricity instead? That’s certainly what the administration would like them to do—it’s explicitly laid out as an alternative in the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule, and Obama echoed that suggestion when he spoke on a conference call the day the rule was unveiled. For years, his administration has pushed natural gas as a fundamental part of America’s long-term energy strategy.
If that happens, it could be a disaster for the environment, according to some leading climate experts. Federal regulations on the extraction and transport of natural gas range from insufficient to nonexistent, and the resultant methane emissions from a bigger natural gas boom could neutralize the gains made by the EPA’s rule, and possibly even accelerate climate change in the short-term.
There are, it should be noted, significant reasons that natural gas might not become an energy source of the future, according to some analysts—but any turn away from gas will be thanks to volatile market dynamics, and not an administration heavily pushing its use.
How does the “Clean Power Plan” work?
In its 645-page proposed rule, the EPA examines the “carbon intensity” of power production in forty-nine states—that is, the percentage of carbon pollution in each state’s power generation output. (Vermont and the District of Columbia are exempt because they have no fossil fuel power plants.)
Then EPA regulators give each state a carbon intensity goal for 2030, and each state has a different goal based on what the EPA thinks it should be able to achieve. When you assume all forty-nine goals are met by 2030, the overall outcome is the projected 30 percent reduction of carbon pollution from 2005 levels.
States have many options to reduce carbon intensity. The EPA rule lays out four suggestions: making coal plants more efficient, boosting energy efficiency in the state, increasing wind, solar and nuclear power—and expanding natural gas power production. States can do some, all or none of those things. They are also free to come up with their own plans, like introducing a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.