The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) said that after an eight-year decline, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants jumped 7.1% in 1Q2013, due in part to rising natural gas prices and the lure of cheap coal.

In an eight-page report released Thursday, EIP said coal’s rebound was “modest,” but higher natural gas prices were partially to blame. The group cited a U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast that predicts natural gas prices will rise to about $4.55/MMBtu in 2013, a price consistent with 2011 but about 34% higher than 2012. Meanwhile, coal prices will remain flat.

“As natural gas gets more expensive, coal is finding its way back into the U.S. electricity generation picture, and that means higher carbon dioxide emissions,” said EIP Director Eric Schaeffer.

“Although power companies plan to retire 45 GW of coal capacity through 2016 due to low natural gas prices, the increased availability of renewables, moderate demand, and the cost of complying with long delayed Clean Air Act rules, a change in just one of those factors (natural gas prices) can encourage plant operators to squeeze more generation out of remaining coal plants.”

The EIP report said that during 2012, when natural gas prices were “unusually low,” gas-fired power generation reached a record 1.23 billion MWh, a more than 60% increase from 2005. The use of coal declined nearly 25% over the same time frame.

“Natural gas releases about half as much CO2 as coal when burned for electricity, but its price can swing widely, and that volatility encourages companies to hang on to dirty and inefficient coal plants,” Schaeffer said. “It is time for states who have been slow to embrace energy efficiency or no-carbon renewables like wind and solar to step up if we want to decrease global warming emissions in the long term.”

The EIA reported Thursday that coal has regained some of the market share for power generation it had lost to natural gas (see Daily GPI, May 24). Preliminary data shows coal was the source fuel for at least 40% of the nation’s electricity every month from November 2012 to March 2013, the most recent month for which figures are available. Natural gas accounted for about 25% of power generation during the same five-month period.

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