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Natural Gas Building Spree Cancels Out Emissions We Save From Leaving Coal Behind: Report

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Burning gas may be cleaner for the environment than coal, but its low cost is encouraging industrial projects with climate impacts as bad as a coal-fired power plant. (PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images) | PHILIPPE HUGUEN via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Companies are so excited about cheap natural gas that they're on an expansion spree, which might undo some of the good we've done by switching to the cleaner fuel from coal, a new report says.

The low cost of natural gas is largely seen as a net positive for climate change, as burning gas generates lower levels of emissions than burning coal. But an Environmental Integrity Project report released Thursday says that though gas is replacing coal -- the dirtier alternative -- in electric power plants, new industrial projects that use natural gas for feedstock or fuel are now being constructed so quickly that we're probably walking back some of our progress.

The report identified 95 new large industrial projects that are at some stage in the permitting process. Using permit applications for emissions, EIP estimated that the projects, which include facilities like chemical plants and oil refineries and all rely on natural gas, will generate an additional 90.9 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. The total is an emissions output equivalent to that of 21 large coal-fired power plants, according to the report.

Recent innovations in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have triggered a shale gas boom in the United States, and gas prices have dropped as a result. The report notes that industries like the chemical sector have been revived and inspired to expand by the low prices.

And with all that cheap natural gas comes the need to process it -- and sell it. But a single liquefied natural gas terminal, which transports the material, can produce emissions comparable to a new coal plant, according to the report. The EIP report documents seven permits or applications for new emissions from terminals since January 2012.

"We're looking at a boom in the gas industry that has some advantages for the economy, but can also create pollution," EIP Executive Director Eric Schaeffer said on a call with reporters Thursday.

In the wake of a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that found that greenhouse gas emissions could be regulated under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency issued draft rules that will require all new power plants to limit the amount of emissions they release into the atmosphere. The EPA's rules will apply to new power plants that emit more than 100,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Industrial facilities that aren't power plants, however, won't need to meet those standards, which means that major new sources of emissions are still coming online. The EPA, the report says, "has yet to meet its legal obligation to get industry-wide standards in place that would set consistent and enforceable emission limits for large sources of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other pollutants that are heating up the planet."

In some cases, tighter emissions standards can also mean more efficiency for businesses, Schaeffer said. "EPA needs to get in front of this phenomenon and get some standards in place that are based, at least in part, on maximizing efficiency," Schaeffer told reporters.

Schaeffer said the report only includes proposed facilities that will emit more than 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Smaller projects excluded from the report would mean an even bigger increase in total greenhouse emissions, he noted.

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