Greenhouse gas emissions creep up in the United States

September 30, 2014, 9:21 PM UTC
Photo Courtesy: Sean Gallup Getty Images

Despite all the talk of solar power and renewables in the United States, greenhouse gas emissions rose slightly in 2013, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The growth was driven by the continued dependence on coal by power plants.

The announcement Tuesday that emissions increased by 20 million metric ton or 0.6% over 2012 should give the Obama Administration additional ammunition as it makes the case for its plan to crackdown on coal-fired power plants. To the dismay of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some Republicans, the Obama Administration is proposing a 30% cut in emission from the power sector from 2005 levels by 2030.

“Climate change, fueled by greenhouse gas pollution, is threatening our health, our economy, and our way of life—increasing our risks from intense extreme weather, air pollution, drought and disease,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “EPA is supporting the President’s Climate Action Plan by providing high-quality greenhouse gas data to inform effective climate action.”

According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, power plants remained the largest source of U.S. emissions, with over 1,550 facilities emitting over 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, roughly 32% of total U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Power plant emissions have declined by 9.8% since 2010, but there was an uptick in emissions of 13 million metric tons in 2013 because of increased coal use.

The next biggest source petroleum and natural gas systems, reporting 224 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease of 1% from the previous year.

Environmentalists said the findings from 8,000 large emitters including power plants, coal mines, oil and gas facilities and landfills were the latest sign that action on climate change was urgently needed.

“Today’s newly-released data provides a critical tool in America’s effort to reduce climate pollution,” Environmental Defense Fund’s Peter Zalzal said in a statement. “Just last week, 400,000 people marched in New York City for action on climate change. This data will help us take that action in the most effective ways possible. The data shows why we need to swiftly deploy meaningful solutions, like EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, and why it’s urgent that we take additional actions to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.”

The only positive news out of the report for environmentalists was that methane, which is 84 times more powerful that carbon dioxide, declined. Reported methane emissions from the petroleum and natural gas sector have decreased by 12% since 2011, with the largest reductions coming from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells, which have decreased by 73% during that period. EPA expects to see further emission reductions as the agency’s 2012 standards for the oil and gas industry become fully implemented.

The news comes in the wake of an announcement last week at the U.N. climate summit that a half-dozen oil and gas companies would commit to voluntarily reducing the release of methane from their facilities in partnership with the United Nations and several national governments. The United States also announced it will provide $15 million to the World Bank’s new Pilot Auction Facility for Methane and Climate Change Mitigation, which aims to generate funding for projects that reduce methane pollution.

For an industry that has been criticized for failing to address methane leaks, the news of a decrease in methane was seen as a sign that their voluntary efforts are paying off.

“We’re proud to see our industry’s efforts demonstrated in EPA data that show emissions are far lower than EPA projected just a few years ago, even as U.S. production has surged,” said Howard Feldman, American Petroleum Institute’s director of regulatory and Scientific Affairs. “Creating good paying jobs and growing the economy go hand in hand with our efforts to reduce emissions both voluntarily and in compliance with EPA emissions standards that take effect in January.”