Shepstone Management Company, Inc.
A new study says natural gas hasn’t just helped lower CO2 (if you care) but also, and much more importantly, saved 38,000 or so lives and done lots more.
It has bothered me for some time that, with all the talk about lowering CO2 emissions by substituting natural gas for coal, the far important environmental benefits of natural gas are getting short shrift. The impacts of lowering CO2 emissions are debatable, after all, but those associated with lowering actual air pollutants are undeniable. Now, an academic study published in the Nature Sustainability pulls our attention back to what ought to matter; that natural gas conversions save lives.
The study, entitled “The downstream air pollution impacts of the transition from coal to natural gas in the United States,” follows the academic template of writing in an unintelligible gobbledygook, using trendy terms to convey studiousness. It employs the current favorite academic buzzword “robust” five times, in fact. But, the study also gets at an essential truth; that natural gas development brought forth by the shale revolution has saved lives and much more, dwarfing its CO2 benefits.
I have, to save you, our treasured readers, the drudgery of plowing through the whole thing, by doing so for you. Here are the essential points regarding why the conversion of electric power plants from coal to natural gas has been so beneficial:
- Between 2005 and 2016, decommissioning of coal-fired units in the U.S. was associated with: (1) reduced nearby pollution concentrations, (2) reductions in human mortality and (3) increases in crop yields.
- Between 2005 and 2016, some 334 coal-fired units at 138 facilities were taken offline and 612 new natural-gas-fired units came online across 243 facilities in the continental United States. These changes (combined with advances in emissions controls technologies) produced net reductions in SO2 and NOx of more than 80% and 60%, respectively.
- The decommissioning of a coal-fired unit is associated with a 0.9% reduction (0.1–1.7%) in overall mortality rate locally for human beings, strongly impacting age groups of 45 to 84 years old.
- Coal-unit shutdowns are also associated with local increases in crop yields of 7.2% (3.3–11.1%) for corn, 6.3% (2.4–10.2%) for soybeans and 4.0% (−0.3–8.3%) for wheat.
- Altogether, the shift away from coal has saved an estimated 26,610 (2,725–49,680) lives and 570 million (249–878 million) bushels of staple crop production. Aggregating the impacts within 200 kilometers raises the central estimates to 38,200 lives and 4.8 billion bushels saved by decommissioning of coal-fired units between 2005 and 2016.
- New natural gas (and coal fired units, for that matter) that come online during the time period were not broadly associated with increased mortality or decreased crop yields.
- The inverse calculation of benefits foregone by not shutting a coal unit down suggests those remaining online caused 329,417 (34,378–626,776) deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion (4.4–15.8 billion) bushels of crops over the time period for areas with 25 kilometers.
Bottom line? Natural gas has saved tens of thousands of lives and substantially improved crop yields near older coal plants. Forget CO2, this is what really matters, but if you’re obsessed with global warming you also ought to like gas because it’s reducing that, too.