A cross-disciplinary team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently released a peer-reviewed study finding significant health and climate benefits as a result of the increased use natural gas for electricity generation.
In fact, the Carnegie Mellon team estimates that continuing to increase natural gas usage could provide as much as $20 to $50 billion in healthcare cost savings:
“The human health benefits of such a switch are substantial: SO2 emissions are reduced from the baseline (MATS (Mercury and Air Toxics Standard) retrofits by 2016) by more than 90%, and NOX emissions by more than 60%, reducing total national annual health damages by $20 to $50 billion annually.”
Improving public health should be a priority, because “health effects, if valued at $6 million per statistical life, constitute 94%” of the economic costs of air pollution associated with energy generation in the US, according to the researchers.
As the below chart shows, most of the public health savings would occur in the Ohio River Valley and southeastern US, where there are dense populations of Americans living downwind of higher-emission, non-natural gas power plants.
According to Carnegie Mellon’s data, power plants using natural gas produce less sulfur dioxide(SO2) and nitrous oxides (NOx) into the atmosphere when burned. SO2 can contribute to acid rain and smog, the clouds that obscure metropolitan areas under clouds of pollutants. Sulfur dioxide is also known to be particularly harmful and potentially life-threatening. Nitrous oxide compounds are known to increase risks of respiratory illnesses and can cause acid rain. Natural gas also produces far less particulate matter, which can lead to health problems if inhaled.
That’s not the only good news in the report. The researchers also expect that a widespread transition towards natural gas electricity generation would reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically.
The researchers found that natural gas power plants produce 50-67 percent less CO2 and noted that natural gas usage has the potential to decrease overall methane (CH4) emissions, “Assuming 3% fugitive CH4 emissions, switching… would reduce the power sector’s contribution to warming by 20% in 2040.” As EID has noted many times, study after study has shown that fugitive methane emission from natural gas production are around 1.2 to 1.6 percent – which is well below the 3 percent threshold for natural gas to have significant climate benefits.
Altogether, the potential decreases in greenhouse gases and air pollution make it impossible to deny the benefits of natural gas production. It is the responsible choice from an environmental perspective and offers significant public health benefits for all Americans.