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What Would a Joe Biden Fracking Ban Look Like? Part Seven: Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions

During the Democrat debate between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice-President Joe Biden on Sunday, March 15, 2020, Vice-President Biden stated that he would allow “no new fracking” as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, banning fracking would cause  greenhouse gas emissions from Minnesota power plants to increase by approximately 25 percent above estimated 2019 levels.

Greenhouse gas emissions would increase because a fracking ban would triple the cost of generating electricity with natural gas, making it impossibly expensive to use. As a result, Minnesota utilities would likely return to burning more coal to generate electricity, which emits more carbon dioxide than natural gas.

This article is the seventh in a series.

Expensive Gas Means Rising Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Burning coal for electricity generation emits about twice as much carbon dioxide as burning natural gas, as you can see in the graph below. As we discussed last week, a fracking ban would make it impossibly expensive to generate electricity with natural gas, which would incentivize utilities to switch back to burning coal instead of natural gas, causing carbon dioxide emissions to rise.

The graph below shows electricity generation from different types of power plants from 2005 through 2019 in the solid lines, and it shows Minnesota carbon dioxide emissions in the green dashed line. It also shows how emissions would increase if it became too expensive to generate electricity using natural gas, and utilities switched back to burning coal. Under this scenario, emissions would increase by 25 percent above 2019 levels.

Some renewable energy advocates may take issue with this analysis because it assumes coal will replace natural gas generation, but Minnesota’s wind fleet generated less electricity in 2019 than it did in 2017 despite the fact that there are more turbines in operation today than there were in 2017. Because wind and solar are dependent upon the weather, there is no guarantee that these energy sources will be able to provide electricity when it is needed in the absence of natural gas. As a result, it makes more sense to assume coal will fill in the gaps left by natural gas.

Conclusion

A fracking ban would cause greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota to rise by making it too expensive to use natural gas for electricity generation. Rising prices would cause utilities to burn more coal, which emits twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas per unit of electricity generated. Wind and solar cannot reliably replace this gas-fired generation because they are dependent on the weather, and wind turbines are incapable of working when the temperature is -22 degrees F, as we learned during the polar vortex of 2019.

Amazingly, some renewable energy special interest groups, who claim that climate change is an “existential threat,” oppose new natural gas plants because they will use “fracked gas.” However, without natural gas, it isn’t possible to retire our coal plants long before the end of their useful lifetimes, which is something they also want to do. Given the contradictions of these two positions, and their opposition to lifting Minnesota’s ban on new nuclear power plants, it is impossible to take these special interest groups seriously.

The next installment in this series will look at what would happen to the cost of electricity for Xcel Energy’s customers if they enact their “preferred plan,” which would close down their coal plants before the end of their useful lifespan and a fracking ban is enacted.

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