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J. Winston Porter: Gas is taking market share in power plants

COAL is an important part of the nation's energy mix. However, natural gas is on a path to surpass coal as the nation's primary fuel for electricity generation.

Despite West Virginia's long history with coal, the emergence of natural gas is not something to be feared. In fact, the state should embrace this game-changing energy resource.

Across West Virginia and many other states, shale gas development has grown by leaps and bounds seemingly overnight. The innovative practice of combining horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has made natural gas and oil trapped in tight shale rock accessible for the first time.

Shale energy technology has now turned the U.S. into the world's largest producer of natural gas.

This rapid increase in gas development is producing both economic and environmental benefits.

As recently as 2008, natural gas cost more than $12 per thousand cubic feet, far too high to compete with coal. But, the surge in shale gas production has lowered the price of gas to under $3 - causing a rapid switch from coal to gas for electricity generation.

Just two years ago, coal plants generated half of the nation's electricity. In April of this year, the Department of Energy reported that coal-fired and gas-fired power generation were equal, both accounting for 32 percent of the nation's electricity.

As decades-old coal plants - inefficient and lacking modern environmental control technology - are retired, natural gas plants are taking their place.  Natural gas has become the fuel of choice for new electricity generation.

Charles Patton, president of Appalachian Power, said earlier this year: "I don't think anybody is going to build a coal plant, given natural gas prices. It's just economics."

Coal will continue to provide a large and critically important share of American electricity generation, and U.S. coal producers are finding a growing market for U.S. coal in emerging economies like China and India.   

However, the retirement of older coal plants and their replacement with natural gas-fired generation is under way.

New production of natural gas is creating tens of thousands of jobs, pouring billions into state economies and providing comparable tax revenue for local and state governments.

In addition, the surge in natural gas liquids is likely to power a manufacturing renaissance, particularly in the petrochemical sector, in West Virginia and elsewhere.

Inexpensive natural gas also will find new applications as a fuel for cars and trucks. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin recently named a Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force to plan moves in this direction.  

Last but not least, the environmental benefits of natural gas are dramatic. For example, production of electricity from natural gas creates a fraction of the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, and about half the carbon dioxide emissions, as electricity produced from coal.

Due to such reductions, the U.S. has lowered carbon dioxide emissions more than any other country over the last six years - a direct result of the increased role of natural gas in electricity generation.  

These positive natural gas trends prove that free enterprise, rather than the federal government picking winners and losers, is the best tool to move towards a cleaner and more secure energy future.

We're in the midst of a dynamic and encouraging evolution in American energy production.  Abundant natural gas is here to stay, and the environmental and economic prospects for West Virginia are bright.

J. Winston Porter is an energy and environmental consultant in Savannah, Ga. He is a former assistant administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.


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