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How gassy are we?

I’m talking about greenhouse gases, of course. And the answer is, now you can find out for yourself.

Martin Lake coal plant

The greenhouse gas wars are about to heat up again in Texas. Next month, a federal court hears oral arguments in lawsuits that Texas has filed to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency, which began regulating heat-trapping emissions a year ago.

The EPA is hardly backing down. On Wednesday, the agency released an easily searchable database of big greenhouse gas polluters across the nation, prompting Texas environmentalists to immediately list the largest polluters in the state. Topping the list is the 1970s-era Martin Lake coal plant (pictured) in the East Texas city of Tatum. In 2010 it emitted nearly 19 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, about 13 percent more than the runner-up, the W.A. Parish coal plant in Thompsons, southwest of Houston. In third place is the Monticello coal plant in Northeast Texas, which narrowly avoided a shutdown when a federal appeals court issued a last-minute stay to an EPA pollution rule last month.

“This will be the first time that this data is publicly available and will inform Americans about the heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted in their communities,” wrote Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, in a blog post. Power plant data has always been available, she said, but now industries like pulp and paper and landfills must also report it.

The photo above, courtesy of Think Progress, is of the Martin Lake plant in Tatum, TX, which has the distinction of being the nation’s top mercury emitter in 2009 (click the TP link for the chart) as well as Texas’ top greenhouse gas emitter last year (the Trib has that chart). No wonder the Sierra Club has targeted it for closure. Note that the other two plants named in that report appears on each of those lists I mentioned – Texas had four of the top five mercury polluters in the country in 2009, with Martin Lake #1, Big Brown #2, and Monticello #5. And as Patricia Kilday Hart reminds us, we have Rick Perry to thank for a lot of this.

Remember in 2006, when Perry issued an executive order fast-tracking permit requests for the construction of new coal-fired power plants? (This occurred, not surprisingly, while he was accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from power and coal interests.)

Back then, Perry predicted the new plants would be an economic boon. Well, yes, says one of his toughest critics, Environmental Defense Fund attorney James Marston.

Wyoming, Marston says, sends rail cars full of coal south to Texas power plants, and we refill them with cash and send them home. To the tune of $1.9 billion a year. This, at a time when Texas is awash in cheap natural gas, a cleaner alternative for the production of electricity.

[...]

Meanwhile, Marston said, Perry’s policies in Texas mean “we have dirtier air and we’re sending money to Wyoming. Both were avoidable if we had better leadership and better vision.”

And about the promise that coal plants would create new jobs? We were hoodwinked. According to a national study by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, proponents claimed the $2.3 billion Oak Grove project in Texas’ Robertson County would produce 2,400 construction jobs. But total construction employment for the entire county increased by only 329 during the peak construction year, the researchers found.

Similarly, in Milam County, the construction of the Sandow project was supposed to produce 1,370 jobs, but only 463 positions materialized.

The researchers concluded: “These findings strongly suggest that the economic development argument for coal plants is relatively weak, especially when compared to the job creation potential of alternative means of addressing demand for power.”

And yet Perry and his henchman Greg Abbott keep up their crusade to let these polluters have free rein. It’s clear whose interests they have in mind.

Even in the absence of enforcement, publishing these data may have a positive effect, as Brad Plumer notes.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Gina McCarthy, the EPA’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, compared the new greenhouse-gas reporting law to the agency’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a database that was passed by Congress back in 1986 to measure and publicize the release of more than 320 toxic chemicals from industrial facilities around the country. “[The TRI] had a tremendous impact in terms of providing opportunities for reduction, and we’re really hoping this information will do the same,” McCarthy said. And, in fact, a variety of analyses suggest she might be onto something.

One recent book, “Coming Clean: Information Disclosure and Environmental Performance” charts the impacts that the Toxics Release Inventory had on polluters. As Mark Stephan, a professor at Washington State University, Vancouver, explained to me, he and his co-authors conducted interviews with a variety of companies about their responses to the new public database. Many companies didn’t even realize they were spewing out so much pollution until forced to start keeping records. And that proved to be a big deal.

For instance, when the inventory was first disclosed in 1987, Monsanto executives realized that the company was one of the largest emitters in the country and pledged to reduce its toxic air releases 90 percent by 1992. This wasn’t in response to any new laws — Monsanto wasn’t legally required to do anything. The company was simply reacting to public information. Stephan adds that many other companies soon followed suit, in response to a fusillade of newspaper stories about toxic waste and pressure from community groups and local environmentalists.

That’s good news, but I have a feeling we’re going to need more than just bad publicity to get some real action around here. Still, forewarned is forearmed. At least we know what we’re up against.

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2 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    Parish has several gas units, which helps it’s GHG per MW number be 55% of the Martin Lake plant., and 70% of the number for the Welsh plant, the next largest GHG emitter among power plants in Texas. Here’s a summary of the numbers for the largest power plant emitters in Texas, in no particular order:

    Plant GHG MW GHG/MW
    Parish 16,583,228 3,565 4,652
    Martin Lake 18,701,286 2,230 8,386
    Monticello 13,880,166 1,880 7,383
    Limestone 13,066,969 1,706 7,659
    Sam Seymour 11,289,000 1,690 6,680
    Welsh 11,103,023 1,674 6,633
    Big Brown 9,468,521 1,150 8,233

    The raw GHG numbers are not that meaningful, as they don’t provide any information about what generates the gases, or the amount of GHG produced per unit of some useful measure.

    The generators love the coal plants because they make them huge profits, as the electricity they sell is priced on the cost of generating power with natural gas. This is where carbon taxes would work well, as charging a per ton tax would substantially reduce the profits on coal plants. That’s far better than the carbon trading schemes, and is much simpler to administer.

  2. Ross says:

    Hmm. Formatting disappeared. Oh well.

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