Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Carbon-emissions culprit? Coal for electricity


The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — America may spew more greenhouse gases than any other country, but some states are astonishingly more prolific polluters than others — and it's not always the ones you might expect.

The Associated Press analyzed state-by-state emissions of carbon dioxide from 2003, the latest U.S. Energy Department numbers available. The review shows startling differences in states' contribution to climate change.

The biggest reason? The burning of high-carbon coal to produce cheap electricity.

• Wyoming's coal-fired power plants produce more carbon dioxide in just eight hours than the power generators of more populous Vermont do in a year.

• Texas, the leader in emitting this greenhouse gas, cranks out more than the next two biggest producers combined, California and Pennsylvania, which together have twice Texas' population.

• In sparsely populated Alaska, the carbon dioxide produced per person by all the flying and driving is six times the per-capita amount generated by travelers in New York state.

"There's no question that some states have made choices to be greener than others," said former top Energy Department official Joseph Romm, author of the new book "Hell and High Water" and executive director of a nonprofit energy-conservation group.

Washington state ranked 30th for total carbon-dioxide emissions, and 43rd for carbon-dioxide emissions per capita.

Dipped slightly last year

The disparity in carbon-dioxide emissions is one of the reasons there is no strong national effort to reduce global-warming gases, some experts say. National emissions dipped ever so slightly last year, but that was mostly because of mild weather, according to the Energy Department.

"Some states are benefiting from both cheap electricity while polluting the planet and make all the rest of us suffer the consequences of global warming," said Frank O'Donnell, director of Clean Air Watch, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. "I don't think that's fair at all."

He noted that the states putting out the most carbon dioxide are doing the least to control it, except for California.

Several federal and state officials say it's unfair and nonsensical to examine individual states' contribution to what is a global problem.

"If the atmosphere could talk it wouldn't say, 'Kudos to California, not so good to Wyoming,' " said assistant energy secretary Alexander Karsner. "It would say, 'Stop sending me emissions.' "

Some coal-burning states note that they are providing electricity to customers beyond their borders, including Californians. Wyoming is the largest exporter of energy to other states, Gov. Dave Freudenthal pointed out.

He said two-thirds of the state's carbon footprint "is a consequence of energy that is developed to feed the rest of the national economy. That doesn't mean that somehow then it's good carbon; I'm just saying that's why those numbers come out the way are," Freudenthal said.

And the massive carbon-dioxide-spewing and power-gobbling refineries of Texas and Louisiana fuel an oil-hungry nation, whose residents whine when gasoline prices rise.

However, some of the disparities are stunning.

On a per-person basis, Wyoming spews more carbon dioxide than any other state or any other country: 276,000 pounds of it per capita a year, thanks to burning coal, which provides nearly all of the state's electrical power.

Yet, just next door to the west, Idaho emits the least carbon dioxide per person, less than 23,000 pounds a year. Idaho forbids coal-power plants. It relies mostly on nonpolluting hydroelectric power from its rivers.

Texas, where coal barely edges out cleaner natural gas as the top power source, belches almost 1 ½ trillion pounds of carbon dioxide yearly. That's more than every nation in the world except six: the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India and Germany.

Of course, Texas is a very populous state. North Dakota isn't, but its power plants crank out 68 percent more carbon dioxide than New Jersey, which has 13 times North Dakota's residents.

And while Californians have cut their per-person carbon dioxide emissions by 11 percent from 1990 to 2003, Nebraskans have increased their per-capita emissions by 16 percent over the same time frame.

Officials in Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska say numbers in their states are skewed because of their small populations. But Vermont, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia are similar in size and have 1/12 the per-capita emissions of Wyoming.

A lot of it comes down to King Coal.

Electricity needs

Burning coal accounts for half of America's electricity. And coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other commonly used U.S. fuel source. The states that rely the most on coal — Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana — generally produce the most carbon-dioxide pollution per person, but also have the cheapest electric rates.

States that shun coal — Vermont, Idaho, California, Rhode Island — and turn to nuclear, hydroelectric and natural gas, produce the least carbon dioxide but often at higher costs for consumers.

It's unfair to pin all the blame on the coal-using states, said Washington, D.C., lawyer Jeffrey Holmstead, who as an attorney at Bracewell Giuliani represents coal-intensive utilities and refineries. Holmstead is the former Bush administration air-pollution regulator who ruled that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant, a decision that was overturned recently by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Coal-fired generation is the most economical, least expensive way to produce power almost anywhere in the world," he said. He argued that outlawing such plants would have little overall impact globally; however, the U.S. has long been the leading global source of carbon emissions.

Instead of trying to wean themselves from coal, Texas government officials went out of their way to encourage the state's biggest utility, TXU Corp., to plan for 11 new coal-burning power plants that would have produced even more carbon dioxide. The strategy collapsed when an investor group buying TXU cut a deal with environmentalists to drop plans to build most of the coal plants.

Comment declined

The Texas state agency charged with monitoring the environment declined to comment on carbon-dioxide emissions. Frank Maisano, a lobbyist and spokesman for Bracewell Giuliani, which also has offices in Texas, defended the state, saying, "These net exporters of energy are always going to produce more carbon dioxide."

Emissions from generating electricity account for the largest chunk of U.S. greenhouse gases, nearly 40 percent. Transportation emissions are close behind, contributing about one-third of U.S. production of carbon dioxide. States with mass transit and cities, such as New York, come out cleaner than those with wide expanses that rely solely on cars, trucks and airplanes, such as Alaska.

Alaska, which stands out for its carbon-dioxide production, also stands out as one of the early victims of climate change. Its glaciers are melting, its permafrost thawing and coastal and island villages will soon be swallowed by the sea. Alaska ranked No. 1 in per-person emissions for transportation, which includes driving, flying, shipping and rail traffic.

Tom Chapple, director of the state Division of Air Quality, says Alaska's sheer expanse requires a lot of air travel. And Anchorage ranked No. 2 nationally in air-cargo traffic.

Associated Press writers Bob Moen, Paul J. Weber, Dan Joling,

Terence Chea and Mike Hill contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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