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Cleaner air comes with few caveats

The country’s greenhouse gas emissions have been dropping significantly. Get excited. But not too excited.

The Environmental Protection Agency reported last month that the greenhouse gas output from power plants, the nation’s biggest emitters, dropped by an astounding 10 percent between 2010 and 2012. Last year alone, greenhouse emissions over the whole economy declined by 4.5 percent. In a separate report, the Energy Information Administration noted that the recent progress on emissions came even as the economy and the population grew.

Though they are separate analyses, both reports point strongly to the same conclusions. A primary driver of the emissions dip has been a widespread switch from the burning of coal to the burning of natural gas to produce electricity. When combusted, natural gas releases about half the carbon dioxide as does coal. The increasing use of novel drilling techniques – commonly known as fracking – has opened up vast areas for production. That has driven domestic natural gas prices down and made switching away from burning coal an economical choice for utilities.

The EIA also noted that the increased use of renewable sources of electricity, especially wind, contributed to the country’s decreasing carbon intensity between 2007 and 2012. And the fact that Americans have been driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars has reduced the burning of carbon-heavy gasoline.

If Congress would finally get the right policies in place, one could imagine a future in which the rise of U.S.-produced natural gas cuts emissions in the short term before giving way to technologies that produce fewer emissions in the long term. That, though, would require the sort of commitment to addressing climate change that lawmakers have so far failed to demonstrate.

So the good news comes with some serious caveats. Fracking requires smart regulation to, among other things, ensure that obtaining and transporting natural gas doesn’t produce too many greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas prices may well rise from 2012 levels, so utilities may switch back to coal to some degree, which would boost emissions. And burning natural gas still produces a significant amount of carbon dioxide, so it isn’t a fuel on which the country can rely forever if the nation is to seriously tackle global warming.

The government, then, cannot simply sit back and watch. In the absence of congressional action, the EPA should continue its efforts to place reasonable regulations on fracking and to limit coal burning under the Clean Air Act. And the public should pressure Congress to establish a more coherent long-term plan to move the economy off carbon-dioxide-producing fuels.