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 percent from the first quarter of 2011 and 8.5 percent 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.
That’s a very positive environmental story, and yet you probably haven’t heard a word about it. Especially from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which couldn’t keep tyrannizing the states if the truth got out — and now that tyranny has the blessing of a federal appeals court.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently rejected arguments by several states and industry groups that the EPA was overstepping its authority and using strong-arm tactics to regulate greenhouse gasses.
As we learned from former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s comment about a crisis being a terrible thing to waste, the heavy hand of government regulation can get a lot heavier if it can claim it’s addressing a crisis. And highlighting a huge decline is energy-related carbon dioxide emissions doesn’t fit the crisis scenario.
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 percent of the electric power generation market, nearly ending coal’s 100-year reign on top of electricity markets.”
There are other factors, of course. For one, a slow economy tends to use less energy, especially oil. And despite President Obama’s two — or is it three — “summers of recovery,” this economy is going nowhere fast.
The economic slowdown appears to be causing a gradual decline in petroleum-related carbon dioxide emissions, which also peaked in 2007 and then began to fall, albeit at a slower pace than the total emissions decline.
Even so, all facets of the energy industry have been working to reduce carbon emissions, and those efforts are beginning to pay off.
The refining industry, for example, reports that between 1990 and 2008 it spent $112 billion — and $20 billion in 2010 alone — to get emissions in compliance with regulations. As a result, the industry has reduced sulfur levels in gasoline by 90 percent since 2004 and a similar reduction in diesel since 2005.
That task is made more difficult when refiners have to rely on upgrading existing plants to meet new federal regulations rather than building new ones, leading several northeast refineries to shut down recently.
The reason for the lack of new refineries is the EPA refused to grant any new building permits.
The good news, according to the Associated Press, is that the EPA has just granted “final permit approval” to three Native American tribes in North Dakota to build a new refinery — the first permit in the lower 48 states in 41 years. It’s a start, but only a start.
So energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are way down, and it’s mostly because of private sector innovations in energy production. It’s a huge success story; just don’t expect the EPA, or the media, to be telling it.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas.