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US carbon emissions continue to fall

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor

Government data shows that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are continuing to plummet, dropping 3.8 percent in 2012. The falling emissions levels have more to do with fuel switching to natural gas and increased energy efficiency than tightening government regulation, one economist says.

“This is a triumph of markets to some extent,” said David Kreutzer, energy economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I think it’s worth emphasizing this is just a continuation of a 60-year long trend of decreasing carbon intensity — as our economy gets more efficient, we don’t need as much energy to produce the same amount of output.”

“We haven’t really needed [tighter environmental regulations] in the past. We’ve seen a 67 percent reduction in carbon intensity starting well before there was a Department of Energy or an EPA,” Kreutzer added.

The Energy Information Administration announced that carbon emissions fell by 3.8 percent in 2012 to the lowest levels since 1994. Five out of the last seven years have seen U.S. emissions fall, in part due to fuel switching from coal to low-priced natural gas — which emits about half the amount of carbon as coal.

Carbon emissions grew during the 1990s and early 2000s as the economy boomed, only to fall during the recent recession. The carbon intensity of the U.S. economy — the amount of emissions per million dollars in the economy — has plummeted since 1949 by about 67 percent.

This news comes as President Obama being to roll out his new plan to tackle global warming. Recently, Obama directed the EPA to craft regulations to cap carbon emissions from new and existing power plants. The EPA’s proposed rule on the issue set carbon emissions limits so low that new coal plants would be unable to meet them, while new natural gas plants would — a welcome development to environmentalists.

“By taking strong action to curb carbon pollution from power plants, U.S. EPA is tacking the greatest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions that threaten our everyday lives and our children’s future,” said Steve Frenkel of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

According to the coal industry, pending regulations are causing companies to scuttle plans to build new coal plants and prematurely close existing ones.

“EPA’s carbon regulations for the coal fleet will be economically damaging, while having no practical effect on global climate change,” said Laura Sheehan, spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. “Already, EPA regulations have contributed to the closure of more than 300 coal units in 33 states.”

However, Kreutzer said that while the EPA is somewhat to blame, for power companies opting not to build coal plants down the line.

“Most of this was a switch because we had so much excess capacity in gas production, they could do it just because of the price of fuels,” Kreutzer said. “Going down the line there is going to be a forced reduction in coal, not a market reduction.”

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