Democratic Party running mates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have both declared that a Biden administration would make the United States generation sector “carbon neutral” by 2035—10 years earlier than even the goal California has set—and the energy sector “carbon neutral” by 2050 while at the same time disavowing plans to ban fracking for natural gas. That apparent contradiction is plaguing energy experts. To be totally carbon free, the energy sector would need to reduce its use of hydrocarbons (coal, oil, natural gas) by 100 percent.
A total ban on fracking, however, would require legislative action and its feasibility would depend on House and Senate election results. Biden can, however, use executive and regulatory powers to accomplish his goal, although it would occur more slowly. He has consistently pledged to ban drilling on federal lands, which accounts for 8 percent of U.S. oil production, 9 percent of natural gas production, and 6 percent of natural gas liquids production. Federal waters produced 16 percent of oil and 3 percent of natural gas in 2018. And, he has committed to reversing President Trump’s regulatory reform efforts, including the rule requiring the oil-and-gas industry to pay to limit methane leaks from fracking wells, which will mostly hurt the small independent producers. From there, he could use the same regulatory process that the Obama-Biden administration used to destroy the U.S. coal industry. While those methods would be slower than a direct ban that Congress would have to approve, they could still get his desired outcome.
The impact of a fossil fuel/renewable energy transition would be mind boggling. The idea that the United States could transition to wind and solar painlessly as Biden projects is a fantasy, especially when realizing that fossil fuels supply 80 percent of our energy today. Germany spent tens of billions of dollars a year trying to make a smooth transition to renewable energy, doubling the cost of its energy, and still getting about 80 percent of its energy supply from fossil fuels.
Hydraulic Fracturing Reduced Carbon Emissions More than Subsidized Renewables
The Biden/Harris ticket is missing what hydraulic fracturing has accomplished in the reduction of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. An Energy Information Administration (EIA) report shows that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the United States fell 2.8 percent last year as many facilities replaced coal and heating oil with less expensive natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing. The increase in natural gas production resulted in natural gas prices plunging, contributing to the premature retirement of many coal-fired power plants.
In the generation sector, carbon dioxide emissions from coal declined by over 50 percent from 2007 to 2019, and by 15 percent in 2019. Between 2016 and 2019, the share of electricity generated by natural gas rose to 38.4 percent from 33.8 percent and coal generation dropped to 23.5 percent from 30.4 percent. Renewable energy increased its share to 17.5 percent from 14.9 percent, including hydroelectricity and other forms in addition to the oft-referenced wind and solar. The increase in the natural gas share of generation was almost double the increase of the share from heavily-subsidized renewables.
According to EIA, the changing fuel mix for electricity generation was the main driver for the decline in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. Between 2005 and 2019, the carbon intensity of fossil fuel generation decreased by 24 percent, mainly due to the reduced generation of electricity using coal. The figure below shows the amount of reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide than coal for the same amount of electricity generated, and from non-carbon sources (nuclear, hydropower, and other renewables.)
Between 2005 and 2019 cumulative U.S. carbon dioxide emissions reductions from shifts in electricity generation from coal to natural gas and to non-carbon generation totaled 5,475 million metric tons. Of this total, 3,351 million metric tons resulted from decreased use of coal and increased use of natural gas, and 2,125 million metric tons resulted from decreased use of coal and increased use of non-carbon generation sources. In other words, 61 percent of the reduction in emissions in the generating sector was due to increased natural gas generation that was a result of the decrease in natural gas prices due to hydraulic fracturing, despite renewable energy being heavily subsidized and mandated by many states.
Hydraulic fracturing and competitive energy markets have done more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the last decade than government regulation and renewable subsidies. Natural gas power plants are the main reason for the considerable drop in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions over the last decade. Fueling these plants is the natural gas from fractured shale basins that provide 95 percent of our natural gas. If Biden can’t totally ban fracking, he will probably use regulation and subsidies to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The transition to renewable energy has not worked very well in other countries, such as Germany, where energy prices have skyrocketed as a result. It is even beginning to cause huge problems in California, where plans are less aggressive than those proposed by Biden. Americans can expect the same result throughout the United States.