Seattle and the U.S. Owe Carbon Reductions to Natural Gas

August 20, 2012

When Greg Nickels was mayor of Seattle, he released a study of Seattle's carbon emissions, claiming the city would meet the emissions reduction targets in the Kyoto Protocol. When the report was released in 2007, Nickels announced "A new inventory of Seattle’s greenhouse-gas emissions shows we are meeting our Kyoto Treaty targets — reducing climate pollution to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012." The goal of the report was to highlight his leadership on reducing carbon emissions.

The report, however, contained a secret: Greg Nickels' policies didn't reduce carbon emissions. In fact, most of the carbon emissions occurred during the 1990s. As we noted when the report was released, it revealed that scores of Seattle homeowners switched from oil heat to natural gas because gas was cheaper. The report admits, "For economic reasons, natural gas has gained favor over oil for space heating since 1990." This reduced the city's emissions because natural gas emits less carbon per unit of energy than oil.

Now, the U.S. as a whole is experiencing the same effect.

The Associated Press announced last week that "the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal."

The irony is that while Greg Nickels and other environmental activists have lamented the country's inability to pass costly and restrictive carbon regulations (something the EPA is now attempting to undertake), the switch to natural gas put the U.S. and Seattle within reach of the Kyoto targets. Despite that success, those same environmental activists oppose increasing the supply of natural gas, further lowering the price and continuing the trend toward replacing coal.

So, will environmentalists celebrate these reductions or will they quibble, arguing they weren't achieved in the way they intended. How they respond will say a great deal about whether they actually care about reducing carbon emissions or whether carbon emissions are simply an excuse to adopt other policies they support.