Coal is on the wane in the United States. In 2006, the sooty rock made up nearly a quarter of America’s energy mix. Yet, through the first six months of last year, it met just 16 percent of our energy needs. 2015 was, as the EIA reports, a decidedly bad year for Old King Coal:
Since reaching a high point in 2008, coal production in the United States has continued to decline. U.S. coal production in 2015 is expected to be about 900 million short tons (MMst), 10% lower than in 2014 and the lowest level since 1986. Regionally, production from the Appalachian Basin has fallen the most. Low natural gas prices, lower international coal demand, and environmental regulations have contributed to declining U.S. coal production. […]
In the United States, almost all coal is used to generate electricity. Recently, coal’s share of electricity generation has fallen as its market share of natural gas and renewables increased. . . In April 2015, natural gas-fired electricity generation surpassed that of coal-fired generation on a monthly basis for the first time in history, and it did so again in each of the months from July through at least October, the latest monthly data available.
It’s no big secret what’s behind coal’s decline, either. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well drilling have transformed the American energy landscape in the space of a decade, unlocking huge new reserves of natural gas and oil that were trapped in shale formations and thought to be inaccessible. Fracking has therefore unleashed a flood of new supplies of hydrocarbons on the U.S. market, and that’s brought natural gas down to bargain basement prices.
As the EIA notes, we mostly use coal to generate electricity, but natural gas-fired power plants can accomplish that same task, which is why plunging natural gas prices are putting the squeeze on coal producers. For parts of the country that rely on the coal industry, this is a bitter pill to swallow, but for America’s environmentalists, this ought to be seen as something of a game changer. Coal is just about the dirtiest fossil fuel around, and burning it not only releases copious amounts of greenhouse gases, but also emits harmful air pollutants into the local environment. Natural gas burns much cleaner, emitting roughly half of those GHGs, and it’s growing momentum in this battle against coal can only be seen as good green news.
But the modern environmental movement is loathe to give any sort of credit to the shale boom, preferring instead to stick to its doom-and-gloom prognostications and moralist chiding. That’s a shame, because America isn’t getting the credit it deserves for greening its economy without donning the eco-hairshirt: No other developed country is making more progress in moving away from coal than we are. We’ve said it before but it bears repeating (even if it does fall on deaf ears amongst environmentalists): Shale gas is fracking green.