Page 620 Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States
fuels for power production; that is outside the scope of its
work. Policymakers tend not to face head-on the need for
such measures. Instead, t hey seem to embrace a quiet hope
that greater energy eciency and the ac celerated develop-
ment of renewable generation will push coal and natural
gas out of the way. However, the history of energy use in
the United States does not support the assumption that
events would unfold in this way.
e United States has undergone several energy transi-
tions, well-documented in Figure 1, produced by the U.S.
Energy Information Administration (EIA).
What began as almost exclusive reliance on wood for
energy yielded to the dominance of coal in the late 1800s.
By the 1950s, petroleum was king, shadowed by its often
co-produced sibling, natural ga s. Building slowly in the
1960s and hitting a modest crescendo in the 1980s, nuclear
power came into the picture, although it has not atta ined a
position of dominance as a fuel choice.
As the nation moved through the era of wood, to the
era of coal followed by oil and gas, a distu rbing pattern
emerged. Although dierent fuels c ame to dominate the
scene, none of the other fuels ever went away. In fact, the
United States has used as much wood for fuel in recent
years as it did during the Civi l War. And even after oil and
gas came to dominate, the use of coa l continued to grow.3
As Kevin Bullis states, “When oil is introduced, it seems
to displace coal, but coal use quick ly recovers. A similar
drop occurs when natural-gas consumption starts to rise.
But within a couple of decades coal use is growing again.”4
With the recession in 2008 and the availability of plenti-
ful, cheap natural gas, the use of coal for domestic energy
3. Kevin Bullis, How Energy Consumption Has Changed Since 1776, MIT
T. R., July 3, 2013, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/516786/
reversed direction and returned to the lev-
els of consumption experienced in 1985.
Does that mean that the use of coal
in the United States is about to end? Not
according to the EIA, which still shows
21.5% of the nation’s electricity coming
from coal in 2040.5 While we have seen
a surge of coal plant retirements in the
past few years, they have mostly involved
smaller generating facilities. A lmost half of
the coal generators of a decade ago have
shut down, but reductions in summer
generating capacity are far less dramatic.
In fact, from 2006 to 2011, capacity
increased from 313 gigawatts (GW) to 317
GW. With 25 GW of capacity scheduled
to retire from 2012 to 2015, almost 80% of
the coal-red generating capacity in exis-
tence in 2006 still remained available as of 2016.6
In that same time period, overall c oal plant annual
output has been reduced from 1,990 GW hours (GWh)
to 1,356 GWh. e common understanding is that this
reduction has been driven by the low cost of natural ga s.
With most of the generating capacity still available, what
happens when the cost of natural ga s rises dramatically, as
history suggests it wi ll?
Many refer to natural gas as a bridge fuel for power
plants, intended to help cut GHG emissions as compared
to the use of coal while we strive to bring down the cost of
renewable power and speed its introduction. But how long
is the bridge, and how do we get o of the bridge when
we reach the other side? And what of the concerns, voiced
by some, that natural gas a s we use it may provide little or
no reduction of GHG emissions when compared to con-
ventional coal use? While more and more people ask these
questions, reassuring answers are hard to nd.
e nation’s history with natural gas use has b een one of
considerable growth. In 2014, businesses and individuals
in the United States used ve times the amount of natura l
gas used 65 years earlier (see Figure 2).7
On average, natural gas consumption grew 2.78% for
each year between 1949 and 2014, despite the fact that
5. EIA, A E O 2018: W P 2050, at 90
(2018) [hereinafter AEO 2018] (electricity generation by fuel in the reference
case 2000-2040, given as 1,200 billion kWh of coal), available at https://
6. Statistics for 2011 and beyond derived from EIA, 27 Gigawatts of Coal-Fired
Capacity to Retire Over Next Five Years, T E, July 27, 2012,
http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7290; generation data from
EIA, Table 1.1 Net Generation by Energy Source: Total (All Sectors), 2008-Janu-
ary 2018, https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.
cfm?t=epmt_1_1 (last released Mar. 23, 2018); capacity statistics (2006)
7. EIA, A E O 2015: W P 2040 (2015)
(DOE/EIA-0383(2015)) [hereinafter AEO 2015], available at https://www.
History of Energy Consumption in the United States
Source: EIA (2017), https://w ww.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id =31892.
Energy co nsumption in the Un ited States (1776-2016)
quadrillion British thermal units
1776 1850 1900 1950 2016