Air Pollution Shows Slight Rise As Feds Prepare First Greenhouse Gas Limits

Heavier reliance on coal to fuel power plants accounts for almost one-third of increase

power plant
With the federal government poised to enact new rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, a five-year decline in carbon dioxide emissions has now reversed, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It isn’t a big bump, increasing only 2.4 percent in 2013 compared with 2012, but a sharp reversal in the 12.5 percent decline in carbon dioxide emissions of five years ago. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions climbed by 7.5 percent in the first two months of 2014, compared with the same period in 2013, according to the EIA.

Much of the increase appears to be due to expanded use of coal, which boosted carbon dioxide emissions by 4.2 percent in 2013 compared with the prior year. Coal accounted for 32 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2013.

Not all of those increases were attributed to the power sector — the residential and commercial sectors both grew quickly as well, according to the EIA. Natural gas, whose price has dropped because of newly found deposits of the fuel in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, also rose by 2.1 percent in 2012 and by 10 percent in the first two months of 2014.

Those trends are likely to continue.

“My best guess is that the next three to five years, we are going to see an increase in greenhouse gas emissions,’’ said Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY campaign, a nonprofit research organization.’’

“Clearly, the anticipated release on June 2 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever proposed rule limiting carbon dioxide pollution from existing power plants is not happening a minute too soon and much needs to follow,’’ he said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the rise in greenhouse gas emissions is not unexpected. “The big drop was due to the recession,’’ he said. “A lot of it is due to the economy.’’

The EIA report comes after the federal environmental agency released a new report, saying there is clear evidence that the effects of climate change are already being felt across the United States.

Among other things, the report said seven of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. Sea level has risen the most along the Mid-Atlantic coast and parts of the Gulf Coast, where some stations registered increases of more than 8 inches between 1960 and 2013.

A more optimistic report was issued yesterday by nonprofit groups, which suggested electric utilities already are taking steps to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas emissions.

Not taking into account 2013 emissions, the report claimed the country’s top 100 electric power producers showed a downward trend of reducing pollutants, including those of greenhouse gas, which fell by 13 percent between 2008 and 2012. Other pollutants fell as well.

“The electric power industry is firmly on the path toward a low carbon energy future, and history shows that it is not only capable of meeting new pollution limits, but that it can do so while keeping our lights on and our economy growing,’’ said Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a nonprofit group which helped produce the report.

According to the report, there were still widespread disparities in greenhouse gas emission rates among the states. New Jersey ranked near the bottom of states contributing to global climate-change emissions, coming in at 44th among carbon dioxide pollution.

“Today’s report shows an industry in transition,’’ said Geraldine Smith, general environmental counsel managing director, environment for PSEG Power, which is the largest power producer in New Jersey.

“Driven by low natural gas prices and more stringent environmental regulations, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the power sector have declined in New Jersey,’’ Smith said. “The report underscores nuclear power’s role in a low-carbon energy future.’’

PSEG was one of the underwriters of the report.