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John Hood: Fracking the cause for emissions drop in NC

By John Hood

RALEIGH — In 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order on climate change that, among other things, established a goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in North Carolina by 40% below 2005 levels by the year 2025.

It was weird pledge. Cooper took office in 2017, not 2005. Nor has the governor been successful in enacting any substantial change in public policy that could plausibly affect greenhouse-gas emissions to any significant degree.

Still, it is quite possible that North Carolina will meet the target Cooper set. If we do, the main cause will be the fracking revolution.

Here are the facts. From 2005 to 2017, total carbon-dioxide emissions from electricity generation in North Carolina fell by 36%. There are other sources of CO2 emissions, of course, and other greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, if present trends continue, it could well be that the overall decline in greenhouse-gas emissions will be in the neighborhood of 40% by 2025.

Is the growth of solar and other renewable-energy sources a major explanation for the decline in emissions? Not really. Solar (2.1%) and hydroelectric dams (3.7%) produced 5.8% of our electricity in 2010. By 2017, solar (4%), hydro (3%), and other alternatives (3.2%) made up 10.2%. That’s a noticeable increase. It explains a part of the emissions decline.

But the vast majority is attributable to the fact that natural gas went from 7% of North Carolina’s electricity generation in 2010 to 30% in 2017. Nuclear stayed about the same (33% in 2017). And coal dropped dramatically from 56% in 2010 to 27% in 2017.

Gas and coal are both fossil fuels. But gas burns a lot cleaner than coal. We’ve been able to make the switch from coal to gas without burdening power customers because the fracking revolution made it economical to drill for and recover large amounts of natural gas from within the United States. It has made America a net energy exporter rather than a net importer. And it is the primary reason for the emissions reduction that Gov. Cooper and his allies may soon take credit for.

This bothers them greatly, of course. They’d like to limit — and, as soon as possible, roll back — the growth of natural-gas generation in North Carolina. Indeed, some of them are also rabidly opposed to nuclear power, an emissions-free technology that remains our largest single source of electricity.

Instead, they argue that solar, wind, and other renewables can do the trick, using new-generation batteries to store the power so North Carolina won’t need gas or nuclear capacity to keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

This is fanciful nonsense. If taken seriously and translated into public policy, it would result in massive increases in energy prices and massive reductions in energy reliability. However, I suspect it will never be taken seriously as a guide to public policy, for which North Carolinians should be most grateful.

Just to be clear: I think state policymakers should take seriously the risks of climate change.

Although there remains uncertainty about the extent of climate sensitivity to greenhouse-gas emissions, and the extent of the damage to be inflicted as a result, the potential consequences could be significant.

But responses that inflict a great deal of pain for very little gain are always going to be unwise public policy, regardless of how many indulgences the politicians might purchase during the process from the “climate crisis” priesthood.

Production costs have, indeed, fallen for solar and other renewables. Because backup generation is still needed, however, the real costs haven’t yet fallen far enough to make truly large-scale investment and conversion a reasonable approach. We’re going to need natural gas for decades. We’re going to need nuclear power in some form pretty much forever.

On this issue, as on others, Roy Cooper has chained himself to an extreme position that doesn’t reflect his previous reputation for moderation. If the state meets his emissions goal, it would be largely because of fracking. He’ll never admit it.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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