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Obama and Climate Marchers Meet in NY but Take Divergent Paths

Many of the marchers see natural gas as an obstacle to progress whereas the president views the energy source as a bridge fuel until green power is able to provide most of our electricity.

President Obama’s trip to the United Nations is infusing the People’s Climate March with new energy. While the president is now encumbered with defeating the Islamic State, the cause of mitigating global warming is still gathering steam. 

As to how those heat-trapping emissions are minimized, though, is up for debate. Lots of cards are in the mix, notably the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Here, natural gas-fired generation would largely supplant coal-fired facilities and thereby help to cut the level of greenhouse gases. 

But that’s where Obama and those marchers present in New York City diverge: Many of the “People” want to completely do away with fossil fuels, which the president knows is not just impractical but also economically harmful. The United States, in fact, is now the top oil-and-natural gas producing country in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia, respectively. 

The reason: By using hydraulic fracturing, developers are able to extract those resources from deep underground and from the rocks where they are embedded. The United States is well ahead of the rest of the world. And while many environmentalists may bemoan the fact that more drilling leads to more production – and more emissions – others don’t see it that way: Burning natural gas results in roughly half the emissions regulated under the Clean Air Act than does coal.

“Clearly, you will impact jobs in coal states,” says Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and the former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency under  former President George W. Bush, in an interview. “But the overall energy strategy is changing and is geared toward more natural gas, which also creates jobs and which has fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”

The implications are vast. In 2000, natural gas provided for 16 percent of the electric generation mix . Now, with the shale gas revolution, it is expected to be 27 percent of that portfolio by 2020. That share is expected to continue to increase, reaching 35 percent by 2040, surpassing coal-fired power, according to estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 

Meanwhile, coal-fired power has fallen from 50 percent of all power generation in 2007 to about 40 percent — a trend that will continue. Already, carbon emissions are about 10 percent less than they were in 2005 .

Huge Transformation

The Obama administration is enacting stricter air quality rules that also include proposals to restrict greenhouse gases, all of which are favoring natural gas facilities over the competition. The Clean Power Plan is the most recent submission. But others have already been enacted and they have cleared the courts: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury, for example.   

Just how has the culmination of regs manifested itself in markets? About 8,800 megawatts (MW) of utility coal capacity was retired in 2012 while an approximate 5,781 MW was taken off line in 2013, according to  SNL Energy , a market research firm. SNL adds that roughly 28,000 MW of coal capacity will go by 2022. Of the total that will be eliminated, 11,000 MW will get converted to other