Who were the worst climate polluters in the US in 2021?

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased 4.1 percent from major industrial sources in 2021, according to new data recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The increase is the largest year-on-year increase in emissions in more than a decade of reports and comes at a time when global climate pollution must be rapidly reduced to limit further warming.

The emissions, 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, were self-reported to the agency by more than 8,100 of the nation’s top climate polluters under the agency’s mandatory greenhouse gas reporting program. Emissions account for about half of all US climate pollution, and the annual update provides the most comprehensive, site-by-site assessment of the nation’s top polluters.

The increase in emissions occurred in the context of an increase in economic activity and industrial production after the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. While emissions from large polluters, generally defined as facilities emitting more than 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, increased in 2021, were 5.25% lower than the pre-pandemic level in 2019.

Evan Gillespie, a partner at Industrious Labs, a newly formed environmental organization focused on decarbonizing heavy industry, said such swings in pollution must stop to meet emission reduction targets under the Paris climate accord. .

“We can’t have manufacturing-related emissions,” Gillespie said. “We have a lot of work to do over the next eight years to get industrial emissions on track.”

Andy Knott, Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign director for the nation’s central region, said he sees a lot of progress in shutting down large coal-fired power plants of many, but not all, electric utilities.

“When I look at the biggest carbon polluters, a lot of them, the utilities that own them, have no plans to retire them anytime soon,” Knott said. “We need to phase out all coal by 2030 and all fossil fuels in the electricity sector by 2035.”

Carbon dioxide is the main driver of climate change, and CO2 emissions from coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants have been the largest source of emissions. However, other pollutants, including methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated greenhouse gases, such as the hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigerators and air conditioners, have also been significant sources of emissions. These “non-CO2” greenhouse gases are much more potent than carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound basis and in many cases stay in the atmosphere for a relatively short time compared to CO2. Limiting their emissions is increasingly seen as a key to stopping warming in the near term.

Below is a list of the country’s top polluters for each of the top greenhouse gases monitored by the EPA. Also included are some of the highest emitters for different sectors of the economy.

carbon dioxide: The James H. Miller Jr. Power Plant in Quinton, Alabama was the largest coal-fired power plant in the United States in terms of power generation in 2021 and was also the nation’s largest emitter of CO2. The plant, owned by The Southern Company, emitted 20,834,019 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021. Company executives announced plans last year to shut down nearly 80 percent of its coal-fired power capacity by 2028 on track to have net zero emissions by 2050. Planned shutdowns do not include the James H. Miller plant.

Methane: The Bailey Mine, a coal mine owned by Consol Energy in southwestern Pennsylvania, is the largest single source of methane in the United States with 90,743 tons of methane emissions in 2021. The near-term climate impact of emissions that’s equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 1.6 million cars, according to the EPA. Consol Energy captures and destroys some additional methane emissions from the mine as part of a pilot methane destruction program.

Nitrous Oxide: Ascend Performance Materials’ nylon plant in Cantonment, Florida released 24,657 tons of nitrous oxide in 2021, four times more nitrous oxide than any other industrial plant in the country, though the figure is still awaiting final verification by the EPA. The plant produces adipic acid, a main ingredient of nylon 6,6, a strong and durable plastic used in everything from socks to carpeting, seat belts and airbags, and it also emits large amounts of nitrous oxide, an unwanted byproduct.

Nitrous oxide is 273 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound basis. Assuming currently reported emissions are correct, the facility’s emissions in 2021 equaled the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 1.5 million cars, according to the EPA. Other adipic acid plants in the United States and Europe installed abatement technology to destroy virtually all of their nitrous oxide emissions in the late 1990s.

Company officials told Inside Climate News in early 2020 that they would reduce nitrous oxide emissions from adipic acid production by 50 percent by mid-2020 and by more than 95 percent by February 2022. However, Nitrous oxide emissions from adipic acid production at the plant increased 38 percent from 2019 to 2021 according to emissions data the company reported to the EPA. Ascend Performance Materials spokeswoman Alison Jahn didn’t directly respond to questions about the hike, but said Ascend has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all of its facilities by 80 percent by 2030.

Hydrofluorocarbons: Hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23) is 14,600 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound basis, making it one of the worst climate pollutants ever identified by scientists with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2021, chemical manufacturer Chemours offloaded 180 tons of HFC-23, a synthetic gas and unwanted byproduct, from its Louisville, Kentucky plant. The emissions, which can be destroyed by incineration, are equal to the annual emissions of 566,000 automobiles. However, HFC-23 emissions from the Louisville facility may soon be a thing of the past.

In October 2021, the EPA required Chemours to use or destroy 99.9 percent of the HFC-23 it produces by this October. Chemours missed its deadline to complete the installation “due in part to supply chain issues” according to the EPA, which granted the company’s request for a 6-month extension. The company has installed and is now operating pollution controls, but is continuing to validate and optimize the system, said Chemours spokeswoman Cassie Olszewski.

Sulfur hexafluoride: Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is 25,200 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, making it the most potent greenhouse gas ever assessed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Once released, SF6 remains in the atmosphere, warming the planet, for 3,200 years. Synthetic gas is used in high voltage circuit breakers to quickly cut off the electric current. In 2021, American Electric Power (AEP) released 18 tons of SF6 from electric substations in 10 states, emissions equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 99,000 automobiles. While AEP had the highest total emissions, Duke Energy Carolinas had the highest SF6 leak rate, 6 percent of all SF6 used in 2021, a rate more than double that of AEP.

Eighty-eight U.S. utilities are part of a voluntary program that the EPA began in 1999 to help utilities dramatically reduce their SF6 emissions. Duke Energy, the largest electric power company in the United States based on revenue, is not part of the program.

“We are definitely working to learn more about the group [and] are reconsidering our involvement,” said Jeff Brooks, spokesman for Duke Energy.

Methane from Gas Storage: The Petal Gas Storage Compressor Station offloaded 2,517 tons of methane from leaking compressors into an underground natural gas storage facility in Petal, Mississippi in 2021. The facility’s emissions were down 49 percent from a year earlier. However, Petal’s emissions remain nearly double those of any other gas storage site in the country, despite being a relatively small gas storage repository.

“We are continuing our efforts to reduce methane emissions at Petal and throughout our system,” said Jillian Kirkconnell, spokeswoman for Boardwalk Pipeline Partners.

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Boardwalk owns Petal Gas Storage Facility and Gulf South Pipeline Gas Storage Facility – Bistineau Station, the second-highest emitting gas storage facility in the country, which lost 1,301 tons of methane in 2021.

Landfill methane: Sampson County Disposal, a privately owned landfill in Roseboro, North Carolina, emitted about 32,983 tons of methane, more than any other municipal or industrial landfill in 2021, according to company data reported to the EPA. The near-term climate impact of the emissions is equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 575,000 automobiles according to the EPA.

Joy Grahek, executive vice president of strategic initiatives with GFL Environmental, the landfill owner, said the company has taken steps to reduce emissions and that the models used by the EPA to estimate emissions are incorrect.

“We have implemented a number of different engineering and operational strategies to minimize fugitive methane generation in the landfill, including the use of impermeable cover materials, an extensive gas harvesting system to capture landfill gas, and the combustion of captured gas,” Grahek said. “The models are widely recognized as containing significant uncertainty, and using EPA reports as a basis for ranking the relative performance of landfills in controlling fugitive emissions is inaccurate.”

Emission estimates for landfills vary widely depending on the method operators use to calculate their emissions, and can underestimate actual emissions by up to “a factor of two”.

The EPA recently proposed changes on how to better calculate methane emissions from landfills.

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