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Note To Environmentalists: Not All Fossil Fuels Are The Same

Investor's Business Daily

Not all fossil fuels are created equal — at least with respect to their carbon footprint.

The good news is the U.S. has been transitioning away from more carbon-intensive to less carbon-intensive fossil fuels. The bad news is that neither the media nor environmentalists seem to care.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, burning coal produces between 205.7 and 228.6 pounds — depending on the type of coal — of CO2 emitted per million British thermal units (BTUs) of energy.

Diesel fuel and heating oil produce 161.3 pounds of CO2 per million BTUs, while gasoline comes in at 157.2 and propane 139.0 pounds/million BTUs.

Natural gas is the clear winner: 117 pounds/million BTUs — nearly half that of coal.

So if the policy goal is to reduce carbon emissions while ensuring that the country has the energy it needs to spur and support economic growth, we would be using more natural gas and less coal. And that's exactly what's been happening — thanks to innovation and the free market.

The EIA points out that in the late 1980s coal was responsible for nearly 60% of U.S. electricity generation, while natural gas produced about 10%. Nuclear power registered about 20% and hydropower 10%.

By 2016 natural gas was up to 33% and coal was down to 32%.

As a result, U.S. carbon emissions for the first six months of 2016 declined to their lowest point since 1991, when there was 70 million fewer Americans. When all greenhouse gas emissions are included, we're still at the lowest point since 1993.

Even more importantly, the economy was growing during most of that decline. A growing economy is usually associated with more CO2 emissions, not less.

The big driver behind the emissions decline was innovation and the market.

The U.S. had peaked on natural gas production until the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which vastly expanded the country's retrievable natural gas resources. As production increased, growing supplies put downward pressure on prices, making gas a better deal than coal for many power generators. As power plants began shifting to natural gas, carbon emissions dropped — at least in most years.

But there's more. Not all crude oil is created equal either. There is heavy, bituminous crude oil that comes from California, and even more so from the tar sands of Canada. And there's what's called light sweet crude, which is much less carbon intensive.

The fracking process, which allows producers to extract crude oil from deep shale formations, now accounts for 52% of U.S. crude oil production. That shale oil — known as "light tight oil" — has a lower carbon footprint than tar sands oil.

Thus, to the extent that fracking can increase access to natural gas and light crude, displacing the need for coal and heavy crude oil, U.S. carbon emissions should continue to decline.

Ironically, instead of cheering these trends, environmentalists ignore them, doing all they can to encourage state legislatures and city councils to limit or prohibit fracking — even though only 14 states actually have a significant amount of fracking, according to Governing Magazine.

The problem is that clean energy sources pushed by environmentalists — wind, solar, biomass — currently replace only about 7% of the energy needed to drive our electricity generating plants. And they have almost no impact on cars and trucks, and especially heavy equipment.

Clean energy cannot replace fossil fuels today, and probably won't for decades — if then.

Thus the nation's policy should be to support "bridge fuels" — i.e., cleaner-burning fossil fuels — made possible and plentiful by fracking. Environmentalists used to acknowledge the need for bridge fuels, but most no longer do. They see all fossil fuels as created equal, which is manifestly — and more importantly, scientifically — incorrect.

The U.S. has made more progress in cutting its carbon footprint then nearly all of the countries that publicly criticize us. And we've done it by embracing innovation and the free market — and fossil fuels.