Coal is still our most abundant form of energy and it’s still relatively cheap to burn.
However, the political, social and scientific pressures to move away from coal are growing greater every day. The biggest drawback of coal is that, while being abundant, it is also among the dirtiest forms of energy (only tar-sand crude is dirtier). More and more, those lobbying for ways to curb climate change and reduce a variety of pollutants associated with coal are gaining traction with lawmakers.
Natural Gas is Cleaner
Natural gas is also extremely abundant, but burns far cleaner than coal. With the recent advances in the drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing, vast new resources of natural gas are being brought forth on practically a daily basis. How much cleaner is natural gas than coal? The difference is dramatic. According to the Worldwatch Institute, natural gas emits 47 percent fewer greenhouse gasses than coal. That includes taking a variety of factors into account, such as methane "flares and leaks” associated with natural gas extraction. Another advantage is that natural gas rigs tend to be less obtrusive within the environment when compared to strip mining and the large-scale terraced pits of major coal operations.
Big Greenhouse Gas Reductions
In the past five years, the United States has actually reduced its greenhouse gas emissions back to 1996 levels, or by more than 12 percent. Much of the credit has been attributed to a significant shift to natural gas to power major U.S. electrical utilities. Coal has fallen from supplying just more than 50 percent of U.S. total energy output to just 35 percent, while natural gas has increased from 15 percent in 2005 to 35 percent by 2012. Because natural gas burns far cleaner than coal, this shift is without a doubt been a factor in the reduction of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. Note that other factors have reduced the overall production of greenhouses gasses as well, such as the flat economy in which industry was using less energy, people driving less, and more efficient cars. Still, the reduction of coal usage and the increase of natural gas is a primary influence.
Of course, the boom in natural gas production has not been without controversy. The process of hydraulic fracturing has spawned widespread protest, especially from environmental groups, who say the process has not been proven to be safe. Other factors also detract from the benefits of natural gas. For example, hydraulic fracturing (often called “fracking") requires large amounts of silica sand and enormous quantities of water to accomplish. Many areas are being mined for silica sand, and local citizens are alarmed about the numerous sandy pits that are opening gaping holes in once pristine landscapes and productive farmland given over to natural gas production. In general, however, the advantages of natural gas over coal are significant across the board when all factors of economics, energy production, and ecology are considered.