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Southern Tops Ranking of U.S. Carbon Emitters as Regulations Loom

By Mark Drajem
January 12, 2012 12:01 AM EST
Southern Tops Ranking of U.S. Carbon Emitters as Rules Loom
Southern Tops Ranking of U.S. Carbon Emitters as Rules Loom

The federal government’s first-ever public accounting of the sources of greenhouse gases puts the spotlight on Southern Co. (SO) and other power companies that will soon face regulation of those emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday released details of carbon dioxide and other pollutants tied to climate change from 6,700 factories, power plants and refineries. Of the 100 top polluters, power generators occupied 96 spots, with three Southern coal-fired units at the top.

The list quantifies which companies at the top of the list would be the hardest-hit by rules now being weighed by the EPA to curb carbon emissions from already-operating facilities.

“Why are we focused on the existing power plants?” David Doniger, policy director for the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, said in an interview. “Because that’s where the emissions are.”

Southern of Atlanta, the nation’s largest power company by market value, is the only operator with three plants among the EPA’s top 10 list. Other plants among the leading polluters are owned by Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings Corp. (TXU), PPL Corp. (PPL) of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Detroit-based DTE Energy Co. (DTE)

Each of the 10 top facilities on the list is a coal-fired power plant. Together they account for 187 million metric tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent pollutants. Those 10 plants issued more greenhouse gases than all the refining facilities surveyed, the second-largest source of those emissions. The report provided aggregate statistics for each facility and didn’t consider the size, efficiency or fuel source.

New-Plant Rules

The White House plans to release at the end of the month the first standards for carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, Gina McCarthy, the assistant administrator for the agency, told reporters yesterday.

Up next on the agenda are rules for existing power plants, which would impose burdens for the first time on Southern and other large producers of power from coal. The White House has not said when those rules will be issued.

Coal accounts for 43 percent of electricity generation, down from more than 52 percent in 2008. A 32 percent decline in natural gas prices last year has led utilities to switch from coal. Compared with the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, according to the EPA.

If the EPA sets a standard for all power plants at a level that is in line with natural gas emissions, it would “preclude construction of a new coal-fired power plant without full carbon capture and sequestration,” William Bumpers, an environmental attorney at Baker Botts LLP (1143L) in Washington, said in an interview.

Largest Generators

Southern’s plants each released more than 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide or equivalent pollutants in 2010, according to the EPA data. The top polluting plants in order are Scherer in Juliette, Georgia; Bowen in Cartersville, Georgia; and James H. Miller Jr. in Quinton, Alabama, according to the data. Southern is the largest U.S. power company by market value.

“The emissions reported for plants Scherer, Bowen and Miller are indicative of those being among the nation’s largest generators of electricity,” Steve Higginbottom, a Southern spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Southern is installing carbon capture technologies, and has invested $8.1 billion in environmental controls since 1990 and plans to invest at least an additional $1.2 billion through 2013, he said.

Ranked On Size

American Electric Power Co. (AEP)’s Gavin plant was also among the top 10 emitters, a finding the company said wasn’t a surprise.

“Ranking coal-fueled power plants based on greenhouse gas emissions is essentially the same as ranking them based on size,” Melissa McHenry, a company spokeswoman, said in an e- mail. “The biggest greenhouse gas emitters are those that have produced the most electricity.”

Still, the prominence of electricity generators did allow representatives for oil drillers and refiners to make the case against new government regulation. The EPA has said refineries are in line for greenhouse gas regulation after rules are issued for power plants.

“Refineries continue to comprise a small fraction of the national greenhouse gas inventory,” said Howard Feldman, the American Petroleum Institute’s director for regulatory affairs, said in an interview. “Why are you picking on us, when we are like the peewee league here?”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at mdrajem@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

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