A funny thing happened while environmentalists were trying and failing to cap carbon emissions in the U.S. Congress. U.S. carbon emissions started going down. The decline began in 2005 and accelerated after the financial crisis. The latest estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration now suggest that U.S. emissions will continue to decline for the next few years and remain flat for a decade or more after that.
The proximate cause of the decline in recent years has been the recession and slow economic recovery. But the reason that EIA is projecting a long-term decline over the next decade or more is the glut of cheap natural gas, mostly from unconventional sources like shale, that has profoundly changed America’s energy outlook over the next several decades.
Gas is no panacea. It still puts a lot of carbon into the atmosphere and has created a range of new pollution problems at the local level. Methane leakage resulting from the extraction and burning of natural gas threatens to undo much of the carbon benefit that gas holds over coal. And even were we to make a full transition from coal to gas, we would then need to transition from gas to renewables and nuclear in order to reduce U.S. emissions deeply enough to achieve the reductions that climate scientists believe will be necessary to avoid dangerous global warming.
But the shale gas revolution, and its rather significant impact on the U.S. carbon emissions outlook, offers a stark rebuke to what has been the dominant view among policy analysts and environmental advocates as to what it would take in order to begin to bend down the trajectory of U.S. emissions, namely a price on carbon and a binding cap on emissions. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute is today succeeding in reducing U.S. emissions where efforts to raise the cost of fossil fuels through carbon caps or pricing — and thereby drive the transition to renewable energy technologies — have failed.
In fact, the rapid displacement of coal with gas has required little in the way of regulations at all. Conventional air pollution regulations do represent a very low, implicit price on carbon. And a lot of good grassroots activism at the local and regional level has raised the political costs of keeping old coal plants in service and bringing new ones online.
But those efforts have become increasingly effective as gas has gotten cheaper. The existence of a better and cheaper substitute has made the transition away from coal much more viable economically, and it has put the wind at the back of political efforts to oppose new coal plants, close existing ones, and put in place stronger EPA air pollution regulations.
Yet if cheap gas is harnessing market forces to shutter old coal plants, the existence of cheap gas from unconventional places is by no means the product of those same forces, nor of laissez faire energy policies. Our current glut of gas and declining emissions are in no small part the result of 30 years of federal support for research, demonstration, and commercialization of non-conventional gas technologies without which there would be no shale gas revolution today.
Starting in the mid-seventies, the Ford and Carter administrations funded large-scale demonstration projects that proved that shale was a potentially massive source of gas. In the years that followed, the U.S. Department of Energy continued to fund research and demonstration of new fracking technologies and developed new three-dimensional mapping and horizontal drilling technologies that ultimately allowed firms to recover gas from shale at commercially viable cost and scale. And the federal non-conventional gas tax credit subsidized private firms to continue to experiment with new gas technologies at a time when few people even within the natural gas industry thought that firms would ever succeed in economically recovering gas from shale.