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Report: Coal falls, gas climbs in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s energy landscape underwent a seismic shift in the last 20 years, according to recent federal data.

For decades, coal fueled the market. Now, natural gas has asserted itself.

An analysis from the Energy Information Administration illustrates the change. Natural gas power plants produced just 2% of Pennsylvania’s electricity in 2001. By 2021, natural gas covered 52% of electricity production.

Coal’s loss was natural gas’s gain. Over the last two decades, coal-fired electricity generation dwindled from 57% to 12%, the EIA said. The economic strain, compounded by stringent environmental regulations, shuttered the majority of the state’s 23 conventional coal plants between 2004 and 2021, The Center Square reported.

It’s an economic transition best illustrated in the state’s western half, where a boom in natural gas development – coupled with growing political pressure to curb industries that contribute to climate change – helped usher in coal generation’s twilight years.

A 2020 analysis from the journal Science published predicts that about 1,400 “coal extraction” jobs will exist in the state as of 2035 – a 67% decline compared to 2018 estimates. Natural gas extraction employment will decrease 77% during the same time frame, the data shows, while plant jobs will decline 70%.

Researchers conclude that nearly three quarters of the nation’s fossil-fuel fired generation capacity will reach the end of its typical life span by 2035. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimates that “limited” coal facilities will operate beyond 2025 in Pennsylvania, though new additions of natural gas are anticipated in the coming decade.

The replacement of coal with natural gas has also helped drive down emissions in the commonwealth. As The Center Square previously reported, since 2008, carbon dioxide emissions fell by 42% while net generation grew by almost 4%.

Such dramatic reductions, though, may have peaked. With coal generation to such a small share of the market, natural gas displacement will have less impact. Pennsylvania’s second-largest source for electricity generation is nuclear energy, which provides 33% of the state’ share. If natural gas grows at the expense of nuclear, then emissions could increase again.

The emissions decrease hasn’t been without tradeoffs, however. A recent report from the DEP noted a “culture of non-compliance as an acceptable norm in the conventional oil and gas industry” in failing to report legally required information on drilling activity. Abandoned wells, both past and present, become harder to track and evaluate without required reporting from extraction companies.

Failing to plug oil and gas wells has environmental and health risks, as well as a financial burden on taxpayers. While $1.3 million in fines have been issued in recent years, plugging abandoned wells or fixing improperly plugged ones could cost $2 billion.

Christen Smith contributed to this report.

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