Replacing Coal With Natural Gas

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If coal is America's heroin, then natural gas could be our methadone.

The Financial Times' Sheila McNulty highlights a new study by PFC Energy suggesting that the U.S. could replace much of its coal consumption with natural gas. Coal plants currently operate at 70 percent capacity but gas-powered plants only run at 25 percent capacity. If gas activity was bumped to 72 percent capacity, it could displace most of the U.S. demand for coal.

Shifting the balance in this way would dramatically decrease carbon dioxide emissions. Coal is by far the dirtiest power source in the U.S., but it is also the most abundant. Natural gas has a leg up in a clean energy economy, but is there enough of it to meet U.S. energy needs?

Sarah Laskow of The American Prospect thinks there is, now that gas companies have figured out how to release gas reserves trapped in shale formations. Laskow explains that hydrofracture drilling, colloquially known as "hydrofracking," has "tapped into gas reserves so huge that the industry is now saying that natural gas could power America for one hundred years or more."

Using natural gas to wean ourselves off coal has a pragmatic appeal. It's domestic, so it would provide jobs and energy security. We could even use existing technology, retrofitting older coal plants for natural gas as Governor Bill Ritter recently mandated in Colorado. Laskow reports growing progressive support for natural gas, with groups such as the Sierra Club and the Center for American Progress teaming with gas companies and Republican interest groups to promote the fuel.

Big oil is scrambling for a slice, with Exxon paying $31 billion for natural gas supplier XTO in December. ConocoPhillips acquired gas company Burlington Resources in 2005, and BP and Statoil have recently padded their portfolios with investments in American gas.  

The main obstacles, however, are environmental. Hydrofracking is extremely water-intensive and has been known to contaminate drinking water. The EPA is currently studying the technique's environmental impact. And however great natural gas may look in comparison to coal, it is still a fossil fuel. Shouldn't we aim for sobriety instead of swapping one drug for another?  

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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