By Timothy Gardner
NEW YORK, Dec 13 (Reuters) - U.S. emissions of the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide will likely rise this year as power plants turn to cheap and plentiful coal, which could add pressure on the government to regulate the gases scientists blame for global warming.
During the first 49 weeks of 2007, CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants rose 3.3 percent versus the same period in 2006, according to Genscape, an energy data tracker.
"There has been a shift in preference to coal from natural gas because it is abundant and cheap," Abudi Zein, a Genscape power generation and emissions expert, said in response to an email.
CO2 is responsible for more than 82 percent of the output of U.S. greenhouse gases, and coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, releases about 40 percent of the country's CO2.
Any rise in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions this year could put more pressure on the United States, the world's top emitter of the gases that are warming the planet.
The United States is the only rich country that does not regulate the gases. The Bush administration has said it hopes to foster global cooperation in fighting climate change by hosting meetings of the world's largest emitters. But the European Union has threatened to boycott the next meeting saying the government has refused to aim for emissions targets in global climate negotiations.
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U.S. data lags Genscape's, but confirms heavy use of coal during the first eight months in 2007. In fact, U.S. coal consumption over that period totaled more than 756 million tons, or about 1.7 percent more than the previous year, according to the Energy Information Administration, the independent statistics branch of the Department of Energy.
Consumption of petroleum, which emits another 40 percent of U.S. CO2, was also higher for the first eight months of 2007 for every sector: transportation, heating, industry and power generation, according to the EIA.
Natural gas consumption, which accounts for 20 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions, was also up, the agency said.
A 2007 rise in CO2 output would return the country back to its trend of rising emissions since 1990. Last year, greenhouse gas emissions fell 1.5 percent, the Energy Information Administration said late last month. Mild winter and summer temperatures last year accounted for most of the drop by pushing down power generation, according to the EIA.
President George W. Bush said in November that the EIA data put the country "well ahead" of his goal of reducing greenhouse gas intensity, or how much of the gases are emitted for every dollar of economic output.
Last year's drop in emissions was the first since 2001 and the third since 1990. This year, a return to more normal temperatures and severe droughts should bring CO2 emissions back to the upward trend.
The average U.S. temperature during the first three months of 2007 averaged nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degreesCelsius) colder than the same months in 2006, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,
Severe droughts in the U.S. West and Southeast this year have dried up power generation from hydropower, which emits virtually no emissions.
And coal use could continue rising next year since the fuel is much cheaper than natural gas. "I think we will continue to see strong coal burns simply because there is so much of the stuff around," Zein said. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Marguerita Choy)