New data set shows largest greenhouse gas emitters

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data map of greenhouse gas emitters.

Want to know what kinds of facilities — and which facilities in particular — are emitting the most greenhouse gases?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just updated its database with information from the year 2011.

As might be expected, power plants top the list. That’s true for the nation, where they emit one-third of the total greenhouse gas emissions, as well as both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In Philadelphia, however, the single largest emitter, by far, was the Sunoco refinery.

Nationwide, power plant emissions were followed — distantly — by those from petroleum and natural gas systems, and then refineries.

The data, which Congress during the Bush administration directed the EPA to begin collecting, are important because greenhouse gases are a primary driver of climate change.

The information is housed on a public-friendly (for those who are technically adept) website,

They’re calling it FLIGHT — for Facility Level Information on Green House gases Tool.

Users can sort the information by the type of industry — which the EPA calls a “sector” — or the type of greenhouse gas. They can sort it by state, county or zip code. They can see information for individual facilities.

The Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, said that  "will be crucial for America’s efforts to reduce the pollution that’s linked to climate change."  Or, as the saying goes, you have to be able to count it before you can control it.

“This vital new information is a call to action for America to work together in deploying innovative solutions to address the carbon pollution from power plants and methane from oil and gas development activities,” said EDF's Peter Zalzal in a press release.

David Doniger, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program, said the data confirms that the nation’s power plants "should be the centerpiece of President Obama’s actions to reduce the threat of climate change... setting carbon pollution limits for existing plants under the Clean Air Act would deliver tremendous benefits for American people’s health and wellbeing.”

In a technical briefing earlier today, Sarah Dunham, director of the EPA’s office of atmospheric programs, said that it will still take a while to draw meaningful conclusions and comparisons from the data, but that the EPA tool is “an increasingly robust resource for decision-makers ad the public.”

This is not the whole picture for greenhouse gas emitters in the nation, but it encompasses the largest emitters. In 2010, emitters in 29 categories were required to submit their data. In 2011, emitters in 12 more categories, including the petroleum and natural gas sector, were required to submit.

Where things will get really interesting — now, and more so in years to come — is in the realm of methane, an issue for petroleum and natural gas facilities. These facilities did not have to report in 2010, but did for 2011.

This sector, Dunham said, was the largest emitter of methane nationwide. She said this new data represented “a significant step forward in understanding greenhouse gas data from this sector.”

Just how much methane is emitted has been a huge debate in the natural gas industry, with battling over industry estimates, academic studies and other assessments.

Comparing data for the first two years, officials found that emissions in chemicals production and metals production increased overall, but emissions by power plants decreased.

On to the local data:

The top three emitters in Pennsylvania were all coal-fired power plants in the western part of the state. The highest level came from the giant Bruce Mansfield generating station in Shippingport, which emitted nearly 16.3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2011.

Next are the Hatfield Ferry generating station in Masontown and the Keystone station in Shelocta, each with roughly 10.5 million metric tons.

When it comes to categories, as expected, power plants are the top emitters by far, distantly followed by a category marked as “other,” the metal industry, refineries, minerals, waste and petroleum/natural gas systems.

The data show that the bulk of methane emissions come from the “other” category, with 44 facilities reporting 7.5 metric tons of CO2 equivalents emitted. The largest emitters were mines.

Next was the waste category, with 60 facilities reporting nearly 3 metric tons.

Pennsylvania shows 46 petroleum and natural gas systems reporting a 762,521 metric tons of CO2 equivalents.

As in Pennsylvania, New Jersey’s top emissions category was power plants, with six of them emitting 12 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents.

However, the single largest emitter was the Conoco Phillips Bayway refinery in Linden, followed by the Bergen power plant in Ridgefield.

The Paulsboro refinery was the state’s seventh highest emitter.

Looking at Philadelphia: The city’s one refinery, the Sunoco refinery, emitted the bulk of the greenhouse gases — nearly 2.8 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents. A distant second was the Grey’s Ferry Cogen Partnership plant. A total of twelve facilities reported emissions.