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Coal to Overtake Oil, Natural Gas is a Questionable Substitute

Posted on 31 January 2013 by Jerry

At the present rate of demand, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that coal will overtake oil as the top world energy source within a decade.  Driven by increasing use around the globe this does not bode well for efforts to slow or reduce climate change.  Increasing consumption in both China and India is projected to exceed that of the United States by 2017.  Without any significant breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequester (CCS), which would remove harmful chemicals from the output of coal plants, coal will continue to be very cheap and very dirty.

United States coal demand is declining because of the substitution of plentiful, less expensive natural gas.  New natural gas extraction techniques, such as hydraulic fracking which pulls gas out of shale deposits, coupled with increasing distribution around the world purportedly offer a cost effective, cleaner substitute for coal.  IEA executive director, Maria van der Hoeven has said that “The U.S. experience suggests that a more efficient gas market marked by flexible pricing and fueled by indigenous unconventional resources that are produced sustainably, can reduce coal use, CO2 emissions and consumer electricity bills, without harming energy security.”

Unfortunately (see 2-26-12 post, “Natural Gas My Speed Climate Change”) the natural gas bonanza for the U.S. may ultimately turn out to be part of the problem rather than solution.  In the earlier article we described results from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Colorado study of methane leaks conducted in a natural gas field near Denver.  Methane is the dominant component of natural gas.  That original study showed a total leakage of 4% of the total gas produced at that field.  This 4% is twice the level the government has assumed for these fields.  Two percent makes natural gas competitive with coal.  Four percent or higher makes coal the better choice. The four percent level of leakage makes natural gas dirtier and more harmful to the environment than coal.

Now the same scientists have reported new data from the original Colorado gas field which supports earlier findings.  In addition, they have released preliminary results of a new, more sophisticated, study of leakage at a natural gas field in Utah which showed an even higher level of leakage.  These measurements show a 9% leakage of total production.  These two high levels of natural gas leakage if duplicated in other studies across the country would suggest we halt production until the leakage problem is corrected.

It also indicates we should not approve the Keystone XL Pipeline which will open up many more areas of Canada to natural gas production.  Otherwise natural gas is a much greater contributor to climate change than we ever imagined, greater than coal.  It will be very difficult however, to slow the land rush for natural gas since the profit motive is often the dominant and overriding motivator in the U.S. and Canada.

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