By July 11, 2016 Read More →

WHO database shows shale natural gas significantly improves US air quality

coal power plantCoal power generation creates fine particulate matter pollution, natural gas-fired plants do not

By Seth Whitehead, Energy In Depth

New World Health Organization (WHO) urban ambient air pollution data shows US outdoor air quality has improved in recent years at the same time the rest of the world’s outdoor air pollution has increased 8 per cent.

Even more notably, WHO data confirms fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) pollution continues to fall in the US, which — as EID has highlighted before — is a direct function of the shale gas revolution.

WHO’s comprehensive database, covering 3,000 cities in 103 countries, shows more than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution worldwide are exposed to PM 2.5 concentration levels that exceed WHO standards.

In sharp contrast, the WHO data show just 20 per cent of people living in urban areas in the US are exposed to PM 2.5 levels that exceed WHO standards, which are far more stringent than the US Environmental Protection Agency’s.

As the following WHO graphic shows, a far larger percentage of cities in the “Amr HI (America high income)” category — which includes the US and five other countries — reported PM pollution well below WHO air quality guidelines in 2013.


For perspective on the significance of the latter, consider that EPA says PM 2.5 can cause “early death, cardiovascular or respiratory harm,” while WHO’s is even more blunt in its assessment,stating

“… Ambient air pollution, made of high concentrations of small and fine particulate matter, is the greatest environmental risk to health—causing more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide every year.”

The reason US PM 2.5 pollution continues to trend downward while the rest of the world heads in the wrong direction couldn’t be clearer — it’s because of increased use of shale gas made possible by fracking.

Electrical generation from coal-fired power plants has traditionally been a primary source PM 2.5 pollution, due to the fact that nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide can combine with water vapor to form PM 2.5.

Natural gas emits one-third the nitrogen oxide as coal and just one percent of the sulfur oxide of coal, however, and due to the cheap and plentiful supply of the fuel made possible by the shale revolution, natural gas-fired electricity generation increased by 50 per cent between 2008 and 2013. Natural gas’ slice of the electricity generation fuel mix jumped from 22 per cent in 2007 to 28 per cent during that time.

Not coincidentally, U.S. PM 2.5 levels decreased 60 per cent from 2005 to 2013, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), as the following EID graphic illustrates:

PM 2.5
So not only does natural gas emit half the CO2 of coal — which has helped the U.S. become theonly country to see carbon dioxide emissions fall in the past decade — it also helps reduce a dangerous pollutant University of California-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller describes in a recent report as a “horrific environmental problem” in countries like China and India where “air pollution in 2010 led to 3.2 million deaths that year.”

No wonder Muller has said, “[S]hale gas is a wonderful gift that has arrived just in time. It can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce a deadly pollution known as PM2.5 that is currently killing over three million people each year, primarily in the developing world.”

As Investment Business Daily recently pointed out, Muller’s assessment is supported by the fact that U.S. urban air quality is far outpacing urban areas in Europe — including cities in countries such as Germany, France and Ireland that have banned or placed moratoriums on fracking.

WHO data shows 60 per cent of European urban residents are exposed to PM 2.5 levels that exceed WHO standards, further illustrating that the coupling of increased use of natural gas for power generation and declining air pollution in the US is no coincidence.

Fortunately, natural gas use for electrical generation has become even more prevalent since 2013.

Natural gas’ share of the electricity generation fuel mix increased to 32 per cent in 2015, according to the 2016 Sustainable Energy America Factbook, and total megawatt hours produced by natural gas was 52 percent higher than 2008 levels in 2015.

As the following EIA graphic illustrates, electrical generation via natural gas increased at more than five times the pace as solar and other renewable sources combined from 2014 to 2015.

EIA Electrical Generation Graphic

Natural gas also overtook coal as the leading source of US electricity generation for the first time in April 2015 and was the top electrical generation fuel in each of the last six months of 2015. Thanks to this trend, IEA credits natural gas for reducing U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions 2 percent in 2015.

EIA also forecasted that natural gas will top coal as the top fuel source for electricity generation in 2016, and so that prediction has been spot-on, as natural gas now accounts for more than 43 per cent of the nation’s available installed generating capacity.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s energy infrastructure update says nearly 4,300 megawatts of new gas-fired generation came online the first five months of this year, compared with 1,796 MW installed during the same period last year.

According to EIA, switching fuels from coal to natural gas accounted for 68 per cent of the 12 per cent total reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions during last decade. Those reductions have also occurred at the same time the economy grew 15 per cent, and thanks to natural gas’ more prominent role in electrical generation, energy production no longer the top industrial source of CO2 emissions.

The transition has also yielded financial benefits in addition to environmental ones. The affordability of natural gas has led electricity prices in the nation’s largest grid, the Mid Atlantic, to drop 40 per cent since 2011, prompting PA Consulting Group energy industry specialist Ethan Paterno to say, “The low gas prices are a big, big deal.”

As encouraging as this new 2013 WHO data is for the U.S., the even more dramatic increase in natural gas use since 2013 means that air quality has likely improved even more than the latest WHO data indicates.

This is great news for the U.S., which will likely continue to avoid a health crisis directly attributable to air pollution that continues to plague much of the rest of the world. WHO estimates that 98 per cent of cities in low and middle-income urban areas throughout the world deal with outdoor air quality that is below WHO standards:

“As urban air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in them.”

Americans can also be thankful for the fact that natural gas use also helps limit indoor air pollution, which much of the rest of the world continues to struggle with as well. WHO estimates 2.6 billion people — roughly 38 per cent of the world’s population — still use wood and animal waste to heat their homes and cook, which leads to 4 million deaths a year.

All of these sobering facts considered, Investor’s Business Daily nailed it when it said: “The air in this country is getting cleaner, and natural gas deserves some fracking credit.”

 at EnergyInDepth

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