By Mitch Jones
Recent moves by a pair of New York City billionaires have once again brought the false choice of coal versus natural gas to the fore. Donald Trump’s decision to pull the Clean Power Plan (CPP) – along with the Energy Department’s push to remake electricity markets – is designed to prop up the failing coal industry. Philanthropist Michael Bloomberg’s response to Trump’s move was to donate another $64 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. On the surface, it might appear that Bloomberg’s efforts on coal are the counterpoint to Trump. But Bloomberg’s vision is not to just replace coal with 100% clean renewable energy. Rather, he has a long history of pushing natural gas – and the harmful fracking required to extract it – as an alternative to coal. He opposed New York’s ban on fracking while he was mayor of New York City, and he still touts his support for fracking today.
Thus, we have two competing plans for America’s energy future, both promoted by fossil fuel-loving billionaires.
The Trump plan seeks to manipulate the electricity market in such a way as to reanimate the moribund coal industry. To do this, Trump has issued a proposal to withdraw the CPP, a regulation which essentially codifies what was already a steady shift from coal to gas. The text of the CCP notes: “We expect the main impact of this rule on the nation’s mix of generation will be to reduce coal-fired generation, but in an amount and by a rate that is consistent with recent historical declines in coal-fired generation.” Since withdrawing the CPP will not in itself change that historical decline in coal, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to alter existing energy market rules to essentially subsidize coal-fired generation. From a climate and public health perspective, this ambition is disastrous.
Meanwhile, the Bloomberg plan seeks to hasten the historical decline of coal while at the same time buttressing fracked natural gas. But this is more or less precisely what the market has already been doing. Bloomberg’s repeated interventions aside, inexpensive natural gas has pushed aside more expensive coal, so that whereas coal was once the dominant fuel choice for electricity generation in America, the two are now about equal.
This trend is further borne out in a recent report from FERC on domestic energy infrastructure buildout. According to its data, between now and September 2020 retirements of coal-fired plants will lead to a reduction of 14,333 megawatts of electric power generation capacity. Over that same period, additions of natural gas-fired plants will lead to a net increase of 83,919 megawatts of capacity. Given that demand for electricity has become largely stagnant in recent years, that’s a huge and largely unnecessary boost for natural gas.
Methane, the major component of natural gas, is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, trapping 87 times as much heat in a 20-year time frame and 34 times more in a 100-year time frame. Given this, adding nearly 84,000 MW of natural gas-sourced electricity in the next three years is insane. It’s especially egregious in light of the devastation climate chaos is already wrecking on our planet and on the human race. And this is just the “mild” climate change that comes with the 1°C in global temperature rise we have already experienced.
Robert Howarth of Cornell University has argued that because of climate tipping points that can be reached at low levels of global warming, relying on fracked natural gas “does not suffice as an approach to take on global warming.” If we want to avoid the worst effects of climate chaos that will inevitably come with higher temperature increases, we must halt new fossil fuel development now and rapidly transition to clean, renewable energy sources.
No one at all concerned by climate change science advocates for burning more coal, yet so-called environmentalists like Bloomberg continue to push burning more natural gas – despite the fact that it too is cooking the planet.
In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that to have a better than 66 percent chance of avoiding a 1.5°C rise in temperature, a point at which even more severe climate change could be triggered, we could only emit an additional 400 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide, beginning in 2011. Yet through 2016 we have already emitted about 220 Gt of carbon dioxide since 2011. That means we have only about only 180 Gt left — equivalent to about four more years under current emission trends — if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding 1.5°C of warming.
So, what about burning “cleaner” natural gas? 800 Gt of carbon dioxide would be emitted just from burning all of the “conventional” natural gas in the world. That’s the gas that could be extracted without fracking. Burning all of the estimated global resources of fracked natural gas as well would add another 5,600 Gt of carbon dioxide. That is a potential 6,400 Gt of carbon dioxide from natural gas alone, or about 29 times the IPCC budget for having a decent chance of stabilizing the climate below 1.5°C of warming.
Even if we had zero emissions from coal and oil starting today, about 97 percent of all known natural gas must be kept in the ground to avoid climate catastrophe. We cannot afford to continue burning natural gas any more than we can afford to continue burning coal.
Debating coal versus natural gas – the Trump plan versus the Bloomberg plan – is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while the planet rages and burns – and coastlines indeed sink. We must move off fossil fuels now.
The Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act (OFF Act), introduced recently by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), would do just that. It would require the United States to take real leadership in fighting climate change, transitioning from fossil fuels to 100% clean energy by 2035. And it would require all cars sold in the United States after 2035 to be zero-emissions vehicles. The plan provides more than $100 billion a year in new funding to fund a just transition to assure that building the clean energy system we need also builds jobs here in America while also directing economic benefits from the transition to the vulnerable communities that have been most impacted by our suicidal reliance on fossil fuels.
That’s the plan we need. Do you care, Mr. Trump? Are you listening, Mr. Bloomberg?