In the first quarter of 2012, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the United States atmosphere has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, according to a recent report released by the Energy Information Administration. With CO2 levels globally still rising, particularly in China, and coal and energy use still growing rapidly in many countries, the news came as a surprise to many leading climate scientists. The EIA says the decline is not the result of government policy, but of a mild winter, a reduced demand for diesel and, most significant, a switch in the use of coal in favour of cheap natural gas.
The report notes that United States carbon emissions from energy use were down by almost 8% in the first three months of 2012, in comparison to the same period in 2011. Carbon dioxide emissions to the sum of 1,340 million metric tons were produced in the first quarter of this year, just two million metric tons more than the same three-month period in 1992. This makes it the lowest level for the quarter since 1992, the Energy Information Administration reports. In 2004 first-quarter emissions were the highest, with nearly 1,580 million metric tons
Natural gas prices are historically low at present, making it a more attractive alternative to the industry.
Supporters of the gas industry argue that America’s shale gas boom has delivered environmental benefits by replacing more carbon-intensive coal-fired power. Natural gas does seem an environmentally friendlier option than coal: it produces more kilowatts of power than the equivalent amount of coal and it provides more energy for each carbon dioxide molecule emitted into the atmosphere. Still, natural gas is not a long-term solution to the CO2 problem. It may burn cleaner than coal, but still emits some CO2. Also, natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking”, may not be as harmless as people think. A three-year study by the Colorado School of Public Health, published earlier this year, found a number of potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in the air near fracking sites in western Colorado. These included benzene, ethyl-benzene, toluene and xylene. These chemicals can cause health problems like difficulty in breathing and headaches. The report even calculated a higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to the wells as compared to those residing further away. Research from Cornell University also suggest that when shale gas is taken from the earth “fugitive methane” can escape into the atmosphere through fissures in the ground. Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in terms of global warming. Another study by the US Geological Survey says since the end of the last century there has been a a six-fold increase in small earthquakes in mid-America which may be linked to oil and gas production, including fracking, . Climate scientists and green groups argue that new investment in gas infrastructure will lock the United States into high levels of emissions for decades to come.
Allthough for some the shift away from coal is a reason to be “cautiously optimistic” about potential ways to deal with climate change, the Energy Information Administration warned that it was “difficult to draw conclusions” from data due to the specific factors in 2011. The data showed that some 18% of U.S. energy consumption in 2011 came from sources that do not emit any carbon dioxide including nuclear, hydropower, wind and solar energy. They can provide a longer -term impact on the CO2 problem. President Barrack Obama has aimed to cut the nation’s carbon emissions by 17 % below the 2005 baseline by 2020, but proposals backed by Obama to restrict carbon emissions have not made it pass Congress. The rival Republican Party are opposed, arguing that climate efforts are too costly and voicing doubt about scientists’ views on climate change.