Recent energy trends show focus on cleaner energy, less imports

by Rolf Westgard, Daily reader

Euphoria over new U.S. oil production is soaring, as North Dakota replaces Alaska as our No. 2 oil producing state. Visions of our energy independence, proclaimed by U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon, dance before us.  The reality is that while North Dakota’s 570,000 barrels per day is a lot, it is only 3 percent of our daily oil consumption.

Conservation and increased production have reduced our oil imports to less than half our demand from two-thirds a few years ago.  That trend is continuing, and we should soon be able to meet our needs from the Western Hemisphere, especially from the huge reserves in the Alberta oil sands. 

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline will support our independence from Middle East supplies.

The other major energy trend is the rapid reduction in coal’s share of electric power fuel. From 50 percent five years ago, coal supplied 42 percent in 2011, and it is now below 40 percent in early 2012. A rise in natural gas use from 20 percent to more than 25 percent at our electric utilities is making up the difference, with help from wind energy which has risen from 1 percent to about 3 percent of electric energy supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing that utilities cannot emit more than 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour produced. Modern natural gas plants already meet this standard. Coal plants produce nearly twice that amount, and there is still no effective way to segregate and bury that carbon dioxide from coal plant flue gas. Emissions of pollutants like sulfur and mercury from coal plants can be controlled at high expense. This expense isn’t economic at many older coal plants, and they are being retired for cleaner natural gas. Longer term, nuclear plants are still an answer, as they emit only water vapor.