Coal / Energy / Hydraulic Fracturing

Q&A on Ohio energy issues

CLEVELAND — Q: How do coal and natural gas extracted by hydrofracking compare as fuels for making electricity in Ohio?

A: Let’s start with the basics, the percent of Ohio electricity from each fuel in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Coal                 83%

Nuclear           11%

Natural gas     3%

Petroleum       1%

Renewables     1%

The natural gas figure above includes natural gas from all forms of extraction combined, including gas wells, oil wells, shale (fracked) gas wells, and coal bed wells. There are no figures by state for shale gas consumption alone.

The amount of natural gas extracted from shale in Ohio has been zero through 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.  There are dozens of exploratory fracking well permits in Ohio now, and we will see what they find.

All told, Ohio is not a significant natural gas producer, with only 0.5% of U.S. production. Ohio ranks 16th among the states, and Ohio’s natural gas production has been dropping for decades.Since Ohio imports most of the natural gas it uses, national figures on shale gas can shed some light.  Shale gas constitutes 13% of all U.S. natural gas production. If the mix of natural gas consumed in Ohio is comparable to the national mix, then the percent of electricity from shale gas in Ohio is 3% x 13% = 0.39%.

With coal at 83%, this would mean that 213 times more coal than shale gas is used in Ohio to produce electricity.

Extractive fuels can pollute during every step in the process: extraction, transportation, burning, and handling of residual solid waste.


The chief pollution problems from using natural gas as a fuel come in extraction — including fracking — and transportation through pipelines that can disrupt habitats and suffer accidents.  There are 300,000 miles of high-pressure transmission pipelines in the United States and its offshore areas. Each mile of pipe uses ten acres for trenching, soil storage, pipe storage, vehicle movement, and so on.  Coal extraction from underground mines involves injury and illness to miners, including black lung disease, and accidents.  Coal extraction from strip mines or mountaintop removal mines has a long list of well-known consequences.


Coal-fired power plants are the single worst point-source polluter in the United States.

Coal-fired power plants emissions contain 84 of the 187 hazardous air pollutants identified by the U.S. EPA as threatening human health. Coal plants release 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants a year, including mercury, lead, hydrochloric acid, arsenic, benzene, radium, dioxin and formaldehyde. All told, these account for 40% of all hazardous air pollutant emissions from point sources, more than any other point source category.  Coal plants are the largest point source category of hydrochloric acid, mercury, and arsenic releases to the air, and a major source of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and soot emissions.

A study in eastern Ohio reported that coal combustion accounted for 70% of the mercury in rainfall.

Residual solid waste: Natural gas burned for electricity leaves no residual solid waste. After coal is burned, coal ash and scrubber sludge is left over.

Q: What about the coming shale gas boom I keep reading about?

A. The shale gas market is growing now. How big a boom it will be is now being debated, for example, in the June 26-27, 2011 New York Times. It may take some time to resolve, since most of what has been printed so far about the shale gas boom has come from the natural gas industry, which has an interest in attracting investors, and fracking opponents who have uncritically repeated what the industry has said.

Q: Does closing coal plants encourage more fracking?

A. In theory, all other things being equal, if two fuels can substitute for one another, then reducing the use of one fuel could result in fuel switching to the other.

Similar questions could be raised about other fuels:  Wouldn’t stopping mountaintop removal coal mining just encourage more nuclear power?  Wouldn’t blocking the Baard coal-to-liquids plant just encourage more imports of foreign oil?

In practice, all other things are not equal.

For one thing, fracked gas is not the only alternative to coal for making electricity.

Let’s say American Electric Power closes its Conesville coal plant 165-MW Unit 3, at the end of 2012, which it said it might do in its June 9, 2011 press release. If they replaced all 165 MW, they could do so with nuclear, natural gas, petroleum, hydroelectric, wood, biofuels, wind, organic waste, geothermal, or the Sun. Since it is difficult for nuclear power to expand in Ohio, let’s take it out of the equation.  Using existing Ohio energy markets as a guide, the power could be replaced by natural gas, petroleum, and renewables in the ratio of 3/1/1.  If so, 99 MW would be replaced by natural gas. 13% of natural gas on the national market, according to the most recent figures, is shale gas extracted by fracking. So that might mean 13 MW from shale gas.

Another possibility is that the coal-fired electricity would be replaced by nothing. This could happen when a utility is overbuilt, with more coal-fired generating capacity than it needs. This is the case today with American Electric Power. AEP Ohio has 1,000 megawatts more Ohio generating capacity than it needs to meet consumer demand. That is the size of one large coal plant. In other words, AEP Ohio utility could shut down one large coal plant, not replace it at all, and still meet demand.

For that matter, most of the changes in U.S. energy markets in our lifetimes have involved the disappearance of demand through efficiency rather than the generation of new energy supplies. Here’s how Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute puts it —

Increasing energy end-use efficiency — technologically providing more desired service per unit of delivered energy consumed — is generally the largest, least expensive, most benign, most quickly deployable, least visible, least understood, and most neglected way to provide energy services. The 46% drop in U.S. energy intensity (primary energy consumption per dollar of real Gross Domestic Product) during 1975-2005 represented by 2005 an effective energy “source” 1.2 times as big as U.S. oil consumption. .  .  .

U.S. energy intensity has lately fallen by about 2.5% per year, apparently due much more to improved efficiency than to changes in behavior or in the mix of goods and services provided, and outpacing the growth of any fossil or nuclear source. Yet energy efficiency has gained little attention or respect.

Indeed, since official statistics focus about 99% on physical energy supply, only the fifth of the 1996-2005 increase in U.S. energy services that came from supply was visible to investors and policymakers; the four-fifths saved was not.

The following chart from the U.S. Energy Department illustrates electricity demand growth dropping over the past half-century.

The following is a roughly comparable chart for Ohio, 1990-2009.

In the chart above, when the line is below 0%, retail sales of electricity in Ohio were shrinking.

If this trend continues, over time most of the electricity “loss” from closing coal plants will disappear through efficiency, and only a fraction of it will need to be replaced by any kind of fuel.

Q: What if the non-shale natural gas reserves run out?  Would that mean that the natural gas supply would be taken over by shale gas?

A: Non-shale gas is nowhere close to running out, as the following exercise shows.

Nationwide, coal is used as the fuel to generate about twice as much U.S. electricity as is natural gas.  For the sake of argument, assume we want to replace coal completely with natural gas as a fuel for electricity generation. Then we’d have to triple consumption of natural gas for that purpose.

In 2009, the United States consumed 7 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas to make electricity. Triple that, and we’d be using 21 TCF, for an increase of 14 TCF.

Is that a lot? Will that force more fracking because it is such an extreme goal? Compared to what?

All other uses for natural gas come to another 14 TCF, so the total use would be 14 TCF + 21 TCF = 35 TCF.  Currently, the official estimate of potential U.S. natural gas reserves is 2,552 TCF.  Of this, 827 TCF is from shale, and 1,725 TCF is not.

Compared to these reserves, an additional 14 TCF a year isn’t much. And that assumes no phase-in; no increase in efficiency, solar, wind, etc.; no imports. Drop those assumptions and the numbers look even better.

Paul Ryder, Organizing Director, Ohio Citizen Action

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