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USA: Few Electric Companies Produce Majority of Polluting Emissions

by Cat LazaroffEnvironment News Service
March 21st, 2002

WASHINGTON, DC -- Just 20 electric utilities in the United States are responsible for half the carbon dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide pollution emitted by the 100 largest power generating companies in the nation, a new report finds. The study by a coalition of environmental and public interest groups found that between four and six companies account for 25 percent of the emissions of each pollutant.

The report's authors say the study highlights the financial and political stakes in the current debate over reducing power plant emissions.

"The high emission levels of many companies and the vast differences in emission rates among companies demonstrate the need for comprehensive power plant pollution clean up legislation," said Dan Lashof, science director at the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) climate center. "The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is currently considering the Clean Power Act, which would deliver the pollution reductions the public has a right to expect, while creating a level playing field for increasingly competitive electricity generators."

The report, "Benchmarking Air Emissions of the 100 Largest Electric Generation Owners in the U.S. -- 2000," was released by the NRDC, the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), which is a national coalition of environmental, investor and advocacy groups, and the Public Service Enterprise Group Inc. (PSEG), one of the electric power generation companies included in the report.

The 1,900 plants owned and operated by the nation's 100 largest utility companies generate 90 percent of U.S. electricity -- and produce 90 percent of total emissions, the report found.

The study analyzes data submitted by the companies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies for the year 2000 on four major power plant pollutants: carbon dioxide (CO2), mercury, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Acid rain, particulate pollution, smog and haze have been linked to NOx and SO2 emissions, and CO2 is one of the greenhouse gasses responsible for global warming.

The authors found that the nation's three largest electricity companies -- American Electric Power, the Southern Company and the federally owned and operated Tennessee Valley Authority -- together produce between 17 and 24 percent of all utility industry emissions of the four pollutants.

When ranked by tons of pollution emissions per unit of energy produced, some smaller utilities emerge as among the nation's worst polluters. For example, Basin Electric Power Cooperative in Bismarck, North Dakota produces more carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity than any other utility. The company uses mostly coal fired power plants to supply electricity to more than 100 rural electric cooperatives.

Different types of power plants produce different amounts of pollution, the report notes. Coal fired power plants produce half of the nation's electricity, but emit 90 percent of the electric industry's total pollution. Nuclear and natural gas fueled plants emit far less pollution per unit of energy produced. The groups issued the report to assist government policy makers, corporate leaders, investors and the public make decisions that could help protect the environment from the effects of electric utility emissions. The report is intended to allow investors and policymakers to see how well the nation's largest power producers are managing to control their pollution emissions, and to shape future regulatory and business decisions to reduce emissions.

"Like other publicly available environmental information, such as EPA Toxic Release Inventory, this information will be valuable to corporate leaders, government policy makers, investors, and the public as they determine our clean air policies," said David Gardiner, one of the report's authors and former assistant administrator of the EPA and executive director of the White House Climate Change Task Force under the Clinton Administration.

"Government decision makers, electric utility executives, investors and the public should use this information to improve the nation's air quality," added Gardiner. "Government will use this information to determine appropriate energy and environmental policy. Environmentally responsible corporate citizens will use this information to improve their own environmental report card. Investors will use it to invest in responsible corporate citizens, and consumers can use it to judge the companies that operate in their neighborhoods."

Congress is now debating a number of proposals that would reduce power plant air emissions. In mid-February, President George W. Bush proposed a new power plant emissions reduction program for mercury, NOx and SO2, with a separate, voluntary reduction program for CO2.

A bill sponsored by Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, proposes mandatory cuts in emissions of all four pollutants, including CO2.

PSEG, along with other members of an industry coalition called the Clean Energy Group, also is advocating a comprehensive, four pollutant proposal for federal legislation. The group supports uniform, national emission standards because they would give utilities more certainty about the value of investing in emissions control equipment and other assets.

"This information helps us understand how our environmental performance compares to our competitors," Mark Brownstein, PSEG director for environmental policy and strategy. "Frankly, some of the data in the report convinced us that we have work to do, and was a factor in our decision to make significant additional environmental investments in our coal units in New Jersey."

At the same time, the EPA is considering proposals that would revise or eliminate the new source review provisions of the Clean Air Act, which require utilities and other industries to update pollution prevention equipment when doing major facility modifications.

CERES plans to mail the report to the CEOs of all 100 companies named in the report, with an invitation to participate in a series of dialogues sponsored by CERES to discuss ways to reduce the industry's emissions. The yearlong dialogue would include companies, investors, and environmental organizations, and would recommend financial incentives specifically to reduce CO2 emissions.

"In the wake of [the collapse of energy giant] Enron, investors are anxious to have as much information as possible to help assess a company's worth and liability," explained Robert Massie, executive director of CERES. "Air pollutant emissions are one of the most measurable, relevant, and significant indicators of risk for this particular industry, while climate change could pose the single most devastating economic impact economy wide."

"We know these emissions are harmful, and we can require their elimination over time in a way that's fair to the entire industry," Massie added. "This is the piece of the puzzle that's been missing."

The report is available at: http://www.ceres.org/publications/main.htm





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