Who Cares How Much Greenhouse Gas is Emitted by Big Factories and Power Plants?

Valerie Everett/CC BY 2.0
Some commonly used refrigerants have a very high global warming impact.

By now you've probably seen EPA's interactive map depicting locations of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the US. (It would have been a far more impressive map, had not so many carbon-intensive operations been outsourced.) What's mapped are notably large greenhouse gas emissions from things that venture capitalists couldn't or won't get hold of: university hospitals, power generation plants, and so on.

Old style refrigerants with especially high global warming potential (as pictured above) are common here because here is where we need air conditioning. Those emissions got counted.

What more can the Federal government do about the big GHG emitters? While Tea Party astro-turfers, the US Congress House of Representatives, and Republican Presidential Primary candidates all agree that nothing is what gets done, and as long as Obama has no stomach for the fight, government will do nothing more. Well...it's not quite that bad.

What gets measured and reported gets managed.
Using EPA's free, public domain data, institutional investors and their service suppliers are, as we speak, working out ratios to reasonably link industrial carbon intensity with traditional investor metrics. Once an interesting ratio gains acceptance, 1%'ers will have at their fingertips a proxy indicator of inefficient industrial process design and/or management decision making. Those ratios will be put in to day-trading computer models. Then, all hell will break loose on Wall Street. You saw how fast that process worked in 2009, remember? Carbon is in their sights.

Awareness of the carbon intensity/financial productivity idea is one of the unstated reasons for political opposition to GHG emission inventories. Opponents also realize that a consistent GHG emission inventory has to underpin a scaled up carbon trading system. Eventually, there may be a call for international standards for products relative to carbon intensity and that too needs GHG inventory access. Tea Party Of Horrors - just such a standard is being proposed by SGS Testing Services!

Push-back is coming,
Now that EPA's map is out, big GHG emitters represented on it will, as appropriate, offer caveats or even attack the messenger and methods used to make the inventory. The NY Times story on EPA's map offered one such example; and it is a good hint as to the constructive reactions which we should expect to see more of.

... the emissions inventory does not capture information about the efficiency of the source. New York University, for example, may rank as a big emitter in New York, but a year ago it opened a co-generation facility that makes electricity and uses the waste heat to heat and cool buildings, thus doing far more work per pound of carbon dioxide emitted than most other sources.

The value of increased executive awareness.
The debut of this GHG inventory reminds me very much of what happened when EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) was rolled out and reporters given tools to access TRI's chemical release information, community by community. A newspaper would do an in-depth story on the tons of dinotrochickenwire being released every day by a factory that generations of readers had worked at. Toxicity characteristics would be discussed in follow up articles.

Employees would ask if the reason they might be feeling low, having a hard time meeting production goals, or whatever, might have something to do with exposure to all that dintro. VP's of HR and Risk Management departments could tbe seen running laps around the factory parking lot, hair afire, shouting 'I think we're fracked,' or the equivalent.

There were reports of corporations offering to buy up neighboring properties to buoy values or, more euphemistically, 'in preparation for planned expansions.'

The free market loves consistent metrics and free data.
Enlightened executives would realize that they'd been made to look the fools for approving purchase of expensive, toxic chemicals that promptly went to waste: up the stack; on the land; down the sewer - in some cases permeating neighborhoods where that same factory's workers and managers lived. Next thing you know, there were capital projects underway to 'make us the most cost efficient and competitive player(s) in this market.'

The GHG map will help distinguish winners from losers.
The first sectors to get a negative hit from EPA's GHG inventory likely will be producers and distributors of coal and suppliers of inefficient services and energy handling products. ( Most of the readily outsourced jobs have already gone to Asia, so don't expect a big acceleration in US job loss - entertainment is coming in the way of Republican whining to the contrary.)

Among the first beneficiaries of EPA's GHG map will be energy efficiency consultants and the manufacturers of efficient boilers and process equipment. Watch that co-gen portfolio!

The natural gas industry should be delighted (although the coming regulatory screw tightening will have them reporting methane emissions as well). Those that run a tight fraking pipe for gas production will be profitable. The corner-cutting ones will suffer.

So, yeah, this little EPA map is a huge deal. Dodging Tea Party attacks, EPA made a goal that will unleash the free market in it's relentless pursuit of efficiency. After a few more years, it will become clear who the foot-draggers are and who has been actively innovating and investing in efficiency. Documenting those practices, EPA could then set technology standards for the foot draggers to catch up on. That's how the process works.

Tags: Global Warming Solutions

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