Column: Natural gas isn’t the villain

Mark J. Perry

Thanks to rapid decline in the cost of abundant natural gas and growth in its use for electricity production, there have been real environmental gains.

As it considers a proposal to build a new natural gas plant, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) should consider government data that show many environmental impacts — acid rain, respiratory ailments, and carbon emissions — have been reduced significantly during the past decade, and generally are still declining.

So there’s only one problem with casting natural gas as the villain: There’s not much real evidence for it.

According to the Energy Information Administration, since the start of the shale revolution in 2006 and leading up to 2016, annual sulfur dioxide emissions dropped 81 percent from 9.5 million metric tons to 1.8 million tons and nitrogen oxides fell from 3.8 million metric tons to 1.63 million tons, a reduction of 57 percent.

And over the same period, annual carbon dioxide emissions dropped 22.5 percent from nearly 2.5 billion metric tons to 1.9 billion tons. Today carbon dioxide emissions from power production are at late-1980s levels. Think about it: even as the nation’s electricity production has risen — by more than 50 percent since 1988 — carbon emissions have fallen.

These numbers should bring home a clear message: The fossil fuel revolution in the United States is profoundly changing not only the economics of oil and gas production but also the environment. When it comes to electricity, the economics increasingly favor low-cost abundant natural gas.

Natural gas is replacing coal, not only in the United States but also in China and India, two countries with fast-growing economies that are beginning to use imports of liquefied natural gas for electric power production. It’s a powerful demonstration that the significant benefits of the American shale revolution are beginning to reach other countries and that the U.S. has the know-how and resources to play a major role globally in reducing carbon emissions.

Everyone seems to recognize this except some environmental groups and those politicians who are eagerly courting their endorsement by supporting efforts to ban the production and use of fossil fuels.

Environmentalists participating in the keep-it-in-the-ground movement want the MPSC to deny Detroit Edison a certificate of necessity to build a new gas plant and instead require the utility to leapfrog into solar and wind power. That misguided approach would unnecessarily send energy costs soaring, presents a risk to electricity reliability, and is far from the most efficient way to achieve environmental progress.

Given that solar and wind energy are intermittent, a switch to renewables would require sophisticated balancing from other energy sources and grid technologies. This would entail a fundamental change in our energy system and impose enormous costs on Michigan’s economy.

While improvements in energy storage technology will continue to make solar and wind power more market competitive, we ought to lean on the resources that are already winning in the marketplace today.

Those who cling to the belief that natural gas can be replaced forget that the reason you hear so little about acid rain these days is that, due to the switch from coal to gas, sulfur dioxide emissions have declined so significantly over the years.

The significant reduction in power-plant carbon emissions to the lowest level in 30 years proves that we can grow the economy and achieve environmental progress, too. And it’s a demonstration that the energy technology revolution — and a dose of reason and resolve — can address climate challenges without changing the way we live.

Mark J. Perry is a professor of economics at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.