Higher emissions linked to coal-fired power plants in Texas and other states

Coal-fired power plants are blamed for rising emissions in Texas and other states. (Jennifer A. Dlouhy/The Houston Chronicle)
Coal-fired power plants are blamed for rising emissions in Texas and other states. (Jennifer A. Dlouhy/Houston Chronicle)

After years of declining greenhouse gas emissions, Texas and other states reported sharply higher levels of carbon dioxide in 2012 as electric generating plants began to use more coal when natural gas prices began to rise, according to a study released Thursday.

The Environmental Integrity Project reported that Texas led the nation in carbon dioxide emissions from power plants in 2012, releasing 251 million tons.

Florida had the next highest emissions, at 120 million tons.

In all, just five states accounted for one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, which produced the report using data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

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Other states in the top five include Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio.

Luminant’s Martin Lake plant in East Texas was on a Top 10 list for the highest emissions, releasing more than 17 tons in 2012, according to the group.

Luminant spokeswoman Meranda Cohn released a statement from the company noting that “while carbon dioxide emissions reductions are not currently required, Luminant’s Martin Lake Power Plant has reduced its CO2 emissions by almost 4 million tons — nearly 19 percent — since 2008.”

The company said it has tracked and reported emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency since 1995 “and has reported additional data for the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule as required.”

Luminant noted that Martin Lake is a three-unit plant with a capacity of 2,250 megawatts and can generate enough electricity to power more than 1 million homes.

Schaeffer said 2013 emission levels are likely to be higher as power generators return to using coal to produce electricity as natural gas prices continue to rise from historic low levels in 2012.

He noted that the electric power sector produces about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas has been credited with helping drop emissions without regulations. Emissions dropped about 13 percent between 2005 and 2012, Schaeffer said; that compares with legislation calling for a decrease of 17 percent by 2020, with provisions allowing for offsets and trading of credits. That measure failed in Congress.

“So 13 percent by 2012 sounds pretty good,” Schaeffer said.

But he said coal-fired generation nationally is up 13 percent compared with the first quarter of 2012, driven by higher natural gas prices.

Natural gas dipped below $2 per million British thermal units in 2012 but has since recovered somewhat, hovering above $4 recently.

Robbie Searcy, a spokeswoman for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the electric grid serving 85 percent of the state, said electric-generating plants are using more coal this year than they were in early 2012.

Coal was responsible for 37.5 percent of energy use during the first four months of 2013, she said. That compares with 30.4 percent of energy use during the first four months of 2012.

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Natural gas use still tops coal use in Texas electric plants, but the margin has narrowed. For example, in April 2013, natural gas was used to produce 38.8 percent of energy in ERCOT’s region, while coal was used for 35.8 percent.

In April 2012, natural gas was used to produce 51.9 percent of energy, while coal was used for just 24.3 percent.

Schaeffer, who called for more development of wind energy and other renewables, said the current focus on natural gas is short-sighted because of price volatility.

“Banking on gas as a carbon-reduction strategy is just not something we can rely on in the long-term,” he said. “There’s too much uncertainty.”