Measures to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions can Prevent Premature Deaths Each Year

According to a study carried out by the University of Colorado at Boulder and Drexel University, the health and financial well-being of the Rocky Mountain region could be improved by imposing fees on energy producers that release greenhouse gas.

(a) Hourly ozone on July 7, 2011 at 3 pm MST. (b) Hourly ozone on July 7, 2030 at 3 pm MST. (c) Change in hourly ozone from the 2030 baseline scenario to the cheap gas scenario. (d) Change in hourly ozone from the 2030 baseline scenario to the GHG fees scenario. (Image credit: Drexel University)

The researchers compared the impacts of four scenarios on the Rocky Mountain region of 2030 by using advanced modeling programs that project atmospheric concentrations of ozone. They also considered factors like changes in energy production, weather trends¸ and present emissions from power plants. Ozone is known to be a ground-level pollutant.

The results of the study have been recently reported in the journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

The researchers looked closely at natural gas, oil, and coal production regions in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and northern New Mexico—which is in the process of planning its energy production transition over the next few decades—and eventually suggested four energy production policy scenarios. Any of these scenarios may well become effective by 2030.

Opportunities to produce power through newly accessible oil and gas as well as renewable resources have increased rapidly in the Rocky Mountain region, which has a growing population. The region needs more electricity and has choices about how to produce it. This analysis helps people understand the implications of different choices, some imbedded in infrastructure that will shape climate and air quality in lasting ways.

Shannon Capps, PhD and Assistant Professor, College of Engineering, Drexel University

Capps helped in conducting the study.

Baseline scenario is the first energy production policy scenario in which present transitions away from coal energy and toward natural gas production—such as the creation of new natural gas extraction sites and the scheduled closing of many coal plants—are considered.

Two scenarios consider the impacts of changes in terms of the cost of energy production and sustainability from natural gas—either it will continue to be less costly or it will be more costly to create than coal.

The last scenario contemplates the possibility of fees being imposed on greenhouse gas producers. This policy was suggested by the earlier administration’s Clean Power Plan and proponents of the Green New Deal.

The researchers used the latest results from energy grid modeling under the various scenarios to determine realistic emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides¸ sulfur dioxide, and greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. This was done for atmospheric modeling programs that determine the related amount of ozone.

Then using a tool developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, the researchers determined how ozone levels in each scenario would have an impact on the health of people in the region. They also determined the social costs of the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The study predicts that in all the policy scenarios, except the one in which the production of natural gas becomes less expensive, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced subsequent to the closure of plants—whether as a cost-saving measure in the “greenhouse gas fees” and “expensive gas” scenarios, or by scheduled retirement in the 2030 baseline scenario.

According to the study, this may not be an unexpected discovery at this point in the overall interpretation of energy production and sustainability, but the financial and health ripple effects of these changes are clearly evident.

According to the study, “the reduction in ozone from 2011 to the 2030 baseline scenario is estimated to reduce total mortalities (sum of short-term and long-term mortalities) by about 200 annual deaths.

Metrics associating an economic impact with mortality rate determine that the scenario’s health benefits would equate to $2 billion. There is a continuous improvement in mortality rates, specifically under a scenario where fees are levied on greenhouse gas producers, together with an extra economic benefit of $200 million.

On the other hand, if gas prices happen to reduce—leading to more use of it and thus increased emissions—the model predicts an increase in mortality rate that corresponds to an $80 million reduction in the economic gains anticipated by 2030.

The research points out the difficult decisions that are being faced by policymakers with regards to sourcing energy. For instance, while moving away from coal consumption toward oil and natural gas can reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide, those advantages are offset by increased VOCs, sulfur dioxide, and methane gas related to the extraction and use of such sources.

While a policy that imposes fees on producers of greenhouse gas-emitting energy can be met with opposition, it can also spur market forces toward greater use of energy from renewable sources like solar and wind, which are abundantly available in the region—with the associated advantage of decreasing emissions from oil and gas operations.

This type of research continues to be important as other regions in the U.S. and abroad have access to similar technology for oil and gas extraction, as well as renewable energy production. The outcomes of this study ought to drive careful consideration of those choices.

Shannon Capps, PhD and Assistant Professor, College of Engineering, Drexel University

Apart from Capps, the study was performed by Jana B. Milford and Rene Nzanzineza from the University of Colorado at Boulder. It was supported by the National Science Foundation.


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