Coal vs. Natural Gas: Both Are Bad for the Climate

As natural gas becomes more affordable, power plants are switching over from coal to save money. Since last March, power plants increased their natural gas use by 40 percent. Over the same time period, coal use fell to 57.6 million tons, down from 72.3 million ton in March 2011. Natural gas prices are decreasing due to increased supply from the proliferation of techniques like hydrofracking and horizontal drilling. But, is the switch to natural gas really a good thing? Or, are we just taking one dirty energy source and replacing it with another?

To be sure, coal is bad for the environment and bad for human health. Burning coal is the leading source of air pollution in the U.S. Coal mining is incredibly destructive and dangerous. Coal-fired power plants are a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time that coal use is decreasing domestically, coal exports are increasing, particularly to Asia. China became a net importer of coal in 2009. As a result, any emissions savings realized in the U.S. will be negated by China’s coal use. To stave off the worst impact of climate change, global emissions levels must decrease. It doesn’t really help to just shift where the emissions are occurring.

But, replacing coal with natural gas does not get us very far. We’ve frequently highlighted the environmental and health risk associated with hydrofracking. Flammable kitchen faucets, polluted groundwater, and mysterious health problems associated with fracking are not more environmentally friendly than the environmental impact of mountain top mining. On top of this, a recent study by Cornell University found that fracking releases more greenhouse gases than oil and at least 20 percent more gases than coal mining. As a result, while the burning of natural gas may be cleaner than coal, the higher environmental footprint of fracking could not only negate any benefit, but actually increase environmental harm.

It’s clear we have to move beyond coal but natural gas is not the answer to our climate and energy crises. Plus, there is the very real economic issue of how to transition workers and towns that are dependent on coal mining. In many parts of the country, coal mining is the only economic engine and without a transition plan in place, these areas will further suffer.

The answer to the climate and energy crises remains the same: we must expand both energy efficiency programs and renewable energy production. We need to decrease our overall demand for energy to both bring us closer to energy independence and to meaningfully decrease our greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable energy production will prevent the damage caused by coal and gas extractions and result in cleaner air and water. Simply replacing one dirty source with another is not going to cut it.