U.S. Carbon Emissions Down Thanks Largely To Natural Gas

Carbon emissions in the U.S. have declined just as use of natural gas in electricity production has increased. That's no coincidence.

While the debate over the causes of climate change has, rather bizarrely in my opinion, become a political dispute rather than a scientific one, there’s been some quiet news in the field that should be of interests to people on both sides of the political aisle. Essentially, what’s been happening over the past several years is that carbon emission levels in the United States have fallen to levels not seen since the 1990s thanks largely to a major shift to the use of natural gas in energy production:

The most underreported recent environmental story has been the dramatic decline in energy-related carbon emissions — nearly back to mid-1990s levels, and falling.

Maybe it’s because that story just doesn’t fit the left’s mantra that traditional energy sources are destroying the environment.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) June energy report says that energy-related carbon dioxide fell to 5,473 million metric tons (MMT) in 2011.

That’s down from a high of 6,020 MMT in 2007, and only a little above 1995’s level of 5,314 MMT.

Better yet, emissions in the first quarter of 2012 fell at an even faster rate — down 7.5% from the first quarter of 2011 and 8.5% from the same time in 2010. If the rest of 2012 follows its first-quarter trend, we may see total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions drop to early-1990s levels.


So why the decline? It would be hard to credit either political party. As EIA figures show, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions had been rising steadily for decades — through both Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses. They were rising in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president, and continued to rise when George W. Bush was in office.

However, emissions began to fall after 2007, when Barack Obama was only a second-year senator — so he doesn’t get the credit.

The most likely explanation for the decline is the shale gas revolution, made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Increasingly, power plants are turning to natural gas because it has become abundant, and therefore cheap. And though technology is improving our ability to reduce emissions from coal usage, natural gas is still a much cleaner source.

Indeed, natural gas has just passed an important milestone. As noted by John Hanger, energy expert and former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: “As of April, gas tied coal at 32% of the electric power generation market, nearly ending coal’s 100-year reign on top of electricity markets.”

The Institute For Energy Research also makes note of the drop in carbon emissions from their peak at the middle of the last decade:

In 2011, total carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were 5,472 million metric tons, of which 34 percent was from coal, 24 percent from natural gas, and 42 percent from petroleum. Carbon dioxide emissions from petroleum declined by 2.1 percent in 2011 as a poor economy, high oil prices, and increased use of biofuels resulted in a drop in petroleum consumption of 1.8 percent.

Carbon dioxide emissions from coal also declined, but at a higher rate than petroleum—5.8 percent— as low natural gas prices and EPA regulations have both electric generators and industrial producers switching to natural gas as their fuel of choice. Lower natural gas prices are a result of hydraulic fracturing technology that allows shale gas to be produced very economically in abundant quantities. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas increased by 2.4 percent. Since 2006, carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas have increased by almost 12 percent.

But, because the carbon dioxide content of natural gas is about half that of coal, fuel switching from coal to natural gas for electric generation has resulted in lower carbon dioxide emissions from that sector.  So, even though the demand for electricity was up in 2011 by 1.2 percent, carbon dioxide emissions from the electric generation sector were down by 4.6 percent. That trend in continuing into 2012 as coal’s share of generation continues to decline.

And, the forecast for the future seems promising as well:

Some expect that carbon dioxide emissions will fall back to 1990 levels in 2012. According to the Energy Information Administration, energy-related carbon emissions fell by 7.8 percent during the first quarter of 2012; they are 8.5 percent lower than they were in the first quarter of 2010.

As always, of course, a picture is worth a thousand words:

The decline in total emissions, as well as emissions from coal and fossil fuels is rather obvious. Of course, it’s worth noting that at least some of this decline in emissions could be due to the impact of the economic downturn. In reality, it’s likely the economic crisis that has helped contribute to this process, though. With the economy in a period of tediously low growth, demand for energy is low meaning that energy producers began looking for ways to cut costs since increasing rates would have been problematic in such an environment. With oil prices remaining at relatively high rates and new EPA regulations making coal-fired plants more expensive to run, the switch to cheap, plentiful and cleaner-burning natural gas was really rather inevitable. If this trend continues, then America’s love affair with coal will begin to come to an end as technologies such as fracking make it easier to tap into the vast supplies of natural gas in the United States. By some estimates, there may be a century’s worth of energy underneath the United States alone, with vast unknown quantities in other parts of the world. With nation’s like China and India still pouring tons of carbon into the air as they try to grow their economies, the possibility of a relatively clean alternative energy source should be something that everyone has interest in exploiting.

Bruce McQuain comments:

That’s how it works in markets, or is supposed too.  The fact that emissions are down is an actual side benefit of the process.  And it is a process that has managed to work despite government and environmental groups like the Sierra Club’s interference or attempted interference in the process (the Sierra Club has declared war on natural gas and fracking after accepting millions in previous years from the natural gas industry).

It is a part of the creative destruction of the capitalist process.  Coal will still have its uses, but just as it was replaced as a primary fuel for heating homes last century, it is now being replaced as a primary fuel for generating electricity for the same reason – there is a cheaper and more efficient fuel (which also happens to have fewer emissions) that is easier to produce and deliver than coal.

At some point coal producers will either have to reinvent themselves or find something else to do.  And on the other side, opportunities will expand within the natural gas industry as more and more demand builds.

It’s worth noting the economic impact of the natural gas revolution as well. Just as states like Iowa and Canadian Provinces such as Alberta are benefiting greatly from the energy resources now being extracted from their vast shale deposits, communities in Pennsylvania, New York, and other parts of the United States have seen their economies rejuvenated through fracking technology that makes it possible to extract gas deposits previously thought unreachable. In the process, we’re tapping into an energy resource that is not only less-expensive, but it’s also cleaner burning and it’s entirely domestic. The benefits from all of that should be rather obvious.

Natural gas isn’t the sole answer to the carbon emissions problem, but it’s going a long way toward cleaning things up, at least in the United States, and that’s a good thing.

FILED UNDER: Climate Change, Economics and Business, Environment, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. steve says:

    The regulations that resulted in some of the oldest coal plants shutting down played a part in the conversion to natural gas. Also, nuclear is very costly to build and has been dependent on significant subsidies. Conversion to natural gas in this scenario is only, natural.


  2. Mr. Prosser says:

    Just remember, fracking isn’t totally benign, just ask the residents near the gas fields about their wells and groundwater quality and surface spills of wastewater and fracking fluids. But, in the end, I suppose the country as a whole will find the sacrifices of parts of Pennsylvania, Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming are as acceptable as the pollution caused when an Exxon Valdez incident or Gulf blowout occurs. So far there don’t seem to be viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Excellent post.

    Natural gas indeed is a no brainer, even putting aside the CO2 issue. Not only is it clean it’s cheap, abundant and effective. That there are dopes out there on the far left who reflexively oppose fracking speaks volumes about the real agenda of putative “environmentalism.”

    One word about coal, however. This isn’t the era of Upton Sinclair. Coal plants today burn a lot cleaner than they did 10 or 20 years ago, much less 100 years ago. In addition to vast quantities of natural gas we’re also sitting on a giant mountain of coal. It’s not practicable to expect every coal plant to switch to natural gas. So rather than cripple the coal industry with harder and harder emissions caps we should be putting that industry back to work too.

    A lot more natural gas + more coal would = a lot more good jobs + a cleaner environment to boot. Then if we amped up nuclear power production we’d really be back in business as a country. The ghastly irony, of course, is that so long as the far left has substantial political influences very little to not much of that actually will happen, and thus the country will continue to struggle intensely.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I posted on this a week or so ago. It’s good news but you should read the article a little more closely, Doug. It says energy-related carbon emissions not overall carbon emissions.

    Carbon emissions come from several sources: energy production, transportation, and industrial production, just to name three. Cement production is an enormous source of carbon emissions.

    Natural gas has affected emissions from energy production and that’s good. It also means that “cap and trade” won’t be nearly as effective in reducing carbon emissions as it might once have been.

    To the extent that reducing carbon emissions is of concern the Holy Grail is transportation.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    steve makes a good point. The Clean Air Act of 1990 was widely seen by the coal industry as a natural gas subsidy. Many of its requirements for existing power plants phased in over a long time and plants starting making the latest upgrades in 2006.

    Tsar also makes a good point; the coal plants in existence are expanding and more energy efficient than the ones that are closing. Its not clear to me whether that drop in coal emissions might largely be the result of 10-20% more efficient coal plants, though obviously price of natural gas and the recession can’t be discounted.

  6. Eric Florack says:

    Before we get too busy celebrating about all of this, perhaps its best to look at one of the major reasons that Doug doesn’t mention; the economic downturn. Our economy, like it or not, is directly connected to the amount of energy used. During periods of economic downturn, it would be fully expected to see less fuel burned and thereby a supposedly cleaner environment.

    That situation is certain to be exacerbated if the current administration is war on coal is ended and soon. It’s also linked fits of converting to match that. But knocking out 70% of your electrical generating capacity is bound to have an effect on prices for electricity, and thereby further putting this country into an economic slump.

    As Shaw suggests,These kind of slumps are what happens when government gets involved in picking winners and losers. Funny, how after many prime examples of liberal legislation on the matter…. the relationship between energy and economy…. being demonstrated most clearly by Carter and Obama… the lesson hasn’t been learned.

  7. Eric Florack says:

    Just remember, fracking isn’t totally benign, just ask the residents near the gas fields about their wells and groundwater quality and surface spills of wastewater and fracking fluids.

    I have. The groundwater contamination charges are baseless.

  8. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Eric Florack: Not quite. The actual fracturing may not cause it but getting the fluid to the rock strata can, and does. blogs.scientificamerican.com/…/guest-post-water-contamination-frac

  9. @Mr. Prosser: Just remember, the environmental damage from the by-products in producing solar panels, the need to cover vast swaths of the country with solar panels, all the use of dangerous chemicals to produce solar panels, the killing off of wildlife from covering the land with solar panels, all the birds killed by wind turbines, the messes left over from end of life turbines, the blight on the landscape from turbines, etc and so on.

    Many of these “alternatives” aren’t particularly great for the environment. Want a hydro-electric damn? You’re going to have to blow things up and create lakes. That seriously changes the local environment. Endangered birds are killed by wind turbines all the time. Plus, all the noise pollution.

  10. In another news, an introduction to tipping-points.

  11. Eric Florack says:

    gee, there’s an unbiased source, huh?

  12. Ernieyeball says:

    Maybe Citizen Florack can tip his hat to this item.


  13. JKB says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Well, you’ll probably find this speculation from Walter Russell Mead inspiring. Once us old fuddy duddies get out of the way without need for human interaction, the youngin’s will travel less for work and chores although little Bradley will still be molested if he wants to fly to Disney World for vacation the Sanduskies of the TSA will always be with us.

    Innovation now means reducing our need for travel more than facilitating it. That’s especially true of work and chore related travel. I don’t have to go to the mall as much when I can order everything online. Reducing the amount of business travel will free up enormous amounts of time and cut the costs of getting life’s business done. The travel system of the future may have less to do with multizillion dollar maglev trains whisking us from Albany to Schenectady on business than with telecommuting and virtual conferences. Our descendants may travel less for work than we do, and more for pleasure and education.

  14. By now environmental tipping points are well-established. They are the reason the North Atlantic cod did not “come back” after a fishing ban. There are a number of cases where we thought “we can just stop, and things will go back” but we did stop, and they did not.

  15. Oh yeah, down vote a fact, you idiot.

    Several cod stocks collapsed in the 1990s (declined by >95% of maximum historical biomass) and have failed to recover even with the cessation of fishing.[6] This absence of the apex predator has led to a trophic cascade in many areas.[6] Many other cod stocks remain at risk. The “Atlantic cod” is labelled VU (vulnerable) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.[7]

  16. Dave Schuler says:


    One of the primary impediments to telecommuting is trust. Bosses don’t trust employees actually to put in the time and, unfortunately, for some bosses not having people standing around to pull their forelocks when they pass negates one of the main reasons they have employees in the first place.

    I think those things in combination will sustain commuting to work for some time to come.

  17. matt says:

    We need a multi-pronged approach to energy production for the future. Continued investment in green technologies is a prudent long term goal. Short term goals would be to continue to use natural gas to supplement energy needs. A semi long term source of energy we seriously need to be investing in is LFTRs. Truly clean and safe nuclear power capable of burning nuclear waste is just too good to avoid and other countries are already jumping on the technology.

  18. Mr. Prosser says:

    @William Teach: @matt:
    I tend to agree with both of you and for the reasons you mentioned. Interesting idea from Ryan Avent at Economist today: http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2012/07/global-warming?fsrc=gn_ep.

  19. anjin-san says:

    @ Eric Florack

    gee, there’s an unbiased source, huh?

    This is coming from someone who accepts anything published in “The American Thinker” as holy writ?

  20. Eric Florack says:

    @Ernieyeball: Maybe not.
    The fact is, they don’t even understand the questions on the matter much less the answers… and writing laws as if they DO have the answers is noting short of stupidity…. unless ‘saving the envionment’ isn’t the object. Consider this vid.

  21. anjin-san says:

    One of the primary impediments to telecommuting is trust

    It is widely accepted that a lack of significant face time at the office will have a negative impact on one’s career. That is a real issue even if one’s superiors have confidence that a telecommuter is putting in the hours they get paid for. There is no substitute for being in the mix.

    I am happy to work from home on a short or mid term contracting gig, but for a position that I really have a stake in, I am going to be at the office, and perhaps work one day a week from home.

  22. anjin-san says:

    virtual conferences

    There is a real potential for savings and increased efficiencies here. You can get in this game with the free level of Skype service. I’ve flown from SF to NY for a day of meetings that did not accomplish a hell of a lot.

    Does not make a lot of sense unless I can get a day or two of fun in the city out of the deal.

  23. Lib Cap says:


    It is widely accepted that a lack of significant face time at the office will have a negative impact on one’s career.

    Yeah… I gotta call bullshit on that one.

    What you said may be the norm for the year 1957… or maybe 1975.

    But not now.

    Most major corporations embrace virtualization: it allows them to purchase less real estate.

    Less real estate, less ancillary costs, larger profitability.

    I know of SEVERAL high tech corporations that have nearly eliminated travel.

    Internet is nearly pervasive, so con calls, video conferences, telepresence, and travel when required for must-do situations is the new norm.

    I welcome it!

    Will I be the CEO… nope.

    Do I care? Even less so.

    Corporations abandoned me back in 1985… I have been a self-motivated individual performer looking out for my own well-being since.

    Some jobs will always need a physical presence, most others can virtualize.

    Does that put you at “risk” ? Absolutely!

    So, you better not suck at what you do.

    It is the new reality, and it has paid handsomely.

  24. Ernieyeball says:


    This is a clip of The Planet is Fine. Another Carlin Masterpiece!
    RIP George

    I used to have a script of this on my hard drive til my hard drive crashed.
    RIP Hard Drive

  25. Eric Florack says:

    There’s a bit of learning given me by an English Lit teacher some years ago, who taught that comedy only works if there’s a bit of truth at the center of it.

  26. Dave Schuler says:

    At this point the actual state of telecommuting appears to be that a majority of companies offer telecommuting on an ad hoc basis and only 17% on a fulltime basis.

    There appears to be a difference of opinion on whether telecommuting has a negative effect on one’s career. Some studies have found one thing; others another. The consensus seems to be that being invisible has a negative effect on one’s careeer and telecommuting makes it that much easier to become invisible. If you telecommute, it makes sense to ensure that you do not become invisible.

    I generally work outside of my clients’ premises and have done for thirty years. I make a point of physically visiting my clients at least once a month, preferably once a week. There is no substitute for facetime for ensuring that you remain indispensable!

  27. sam says:

    @Eric Florack:

    There’s a bit of learning given me by an English Lit teacher some years ago, who taught that comedy only works if there’s a bit of truth at the center of it.

    By that standard, nothing you write is funny.

  28. Eric Florack says:

    @sam: so why is it so few can provetheir opposing positions
    yourself, for example

  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Eric Florack:

    so why is it so few can provetheir opposing positions
    yourself, for example

    Bithead, been reading you for years. The only thing you have proven, is that I have been wasting my time. Well, not entirely. You still make me laugh as you try to….

    Tell me, just exactly what is it you are trying to do?

  30. anjin-san says:

    @ Lib Cap

    Yeah… I gotta call bullshit on that one

    I know of SEVERAL high tech corporations that have nearly eliminated travel.

    What part of this did you not understand?

    virtual conferences

    There is a real potential for savings and increased efficiencies here. You can get in this game with the free level of Skype service. I’ve flown from SF to NY for a day of meetings that did not accomplish a hell of a lot.

    As for this:

    Internet is nearly pervasive, so con calls, video conferences, telepresence, and travel when required for must-do situations is the new norm.

    Where did I say that this is not the case? But these things do not necessarary add up to “telecommuting” which is something I take to mean doing all or the majority of one’s work from home. As I mentioned, someone with the right skillset can make a good living doing contract work from home. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last 6 months.

    On the other hand, if you are at a job where you have a long term commitment with a desire for advancement and involvement in strategic decisions, not getting face time at the office will almost certainly work against you. Politics and relationship building are both key components of career advancement, and they are done better in person that remotely.

    It depends on what one’s goals are, and the culture of the company/industry they are in. If you are happy being a senior java programmer, and don’t mind answering to people who often don’t understand what you do, or care that bad decision making on their part can make your job twice as hard as it should be, telecommuting may well be a good deal. But if you want a real say in the direction the business is going in, you are much more likely to get it putting in hours at the office.

  31. anjin-san says:

    Reducing the amount of business travel will free up enormous amounts of time and cut the costs of getting life’s business done

    There is certainly an upside to cutting business travel, but there are also negative consequences for airlines, hotels, restaurants, and convention cities.

  32. Eric Florack says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: arguing with liberals is like playing chess with pigeons. all they do is not go over the pieces crap all over the board and act like theyve won
    case in point

  33. You know, I’m reading “Debt, the first 5000 years” right now. It’s a good book. One of the tidbits in it is that Adam Smith borrowed some theory of free markets from earlier Persian writings. It reminded my that Persia used to be terribly advanced, doing science, and outlawing slavery way back.

    Their downfall was fundamentalist religion. They stopped being smart. They dumbed down.

    Pardon me if I see down-votes on tipping points that way. It isn’t that there are not tipping points. it isn’t that there is science to study them. It’s that a certain set of the US population is ready for the fundamentalist path.

    … be aware that is the kind of thing that leads to modern Iran.

  34. Or, when you play “I can be dumb longer than you can be smart” it is a shallow victory.

  35. Eric Florack says:

    Perhaps, John, other people don’t see your typing points in quite that way. Perhaps they consider that you are the one coming down. The fact is you tend to treat those points as a kind of personal religion.

    with all that implies …

  36. @Eric Florack:

    No, that was just a stupid response. You are playing “I can be dumb longer …”

    If you wanted to be smart you’d have to explain exactly why there can be no tipping point concern. You’d have to be explain why, despite that there are typing points in many natural systems, and despite that they have been documented in climate (glaciation is an easy example), they cannot apply now.

  37. Eric Florack says:

    But the fact of the matter is that nobody particularly laypeople such as yourself understand that are amateurs of those two points. So, you’re forced into a rather Luddite the like position objecting to any Activity for fear that it *might* affect the entire

    Carlin, you see, had it right.

  38. @Eric Florack:

    While I do have a degree in the sciences, I know that history is rich with citizen science. They started it all, long before there were degrees and certifications.

  39. BTW, the irony of a fundamentalist saying “science is religion” and a Luddite saying “science is Luddism” is not lost on me.

  40. wiseupriseup says:

    All I hear is “we are paid by the government to tell you the following.” I am sick of the lies!