Coal plant shutdowns drive U.S. emissions to 20-year low

Source: Amanda Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2015

Carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. electricity production are the lowest in 20 years, according to an analysis released today by the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club credited falling CO2 levels to large reductions in coal use driven by the retirement or the proposed retirement of nearly one-third of the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power plants since 2010.

The nation has already seen more CO2 reductions than those called for in the cap-and-trade bill that failed in the 111th Congress and is on track to hit U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan reduction targets, the report also found.

“The findings quantify for the first time how over the past five years — despite continued inaction by Congress — an unprecedented wave of coal plant retirements has yielded deeper economy-wide carbon reductions for 2015 than those laid out in the Waxman-Markey legislation,” the report says. “Moreover, thanks in part to our coal replacement work, U.S. carbon emissions are trending decisively downward.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies provided funding for the report, which is based on data gathered from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. EPA and research firm Rhodium Group. Bloomberg Philanthropies has provided about $80 million to the Sierra Club for the group’s Beyond Coal campaign aimed at shutting down coal-fired power plants across the country.

The Sierra Club’s 2017 goal is to retire and replace at least half the U.S. coal fleet.

The report today projected that CO2 emissions from the electric sector in 2015 would be 1,983 million metric tons, the lowest since 1995.

The Rhodium Group found that economywide CO2 emissions would be 5.3 billion metric tons, about 150 million metric tons below the 2015 level projected in the 2010 Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill.

According to the report, the United States has retired 41,978 megawatts of coal-fired power generation since 2010. In an op-ed today on, Sierra Club President Michael Brune and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg credited the club’s Beyond Coal campaign for the CO2 reductions.

“Yes, cleaner energy sources have played an important role in reducing emissions. So did the Obama administration’s tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks,” they wrote. “But the biggest factor, as the new data shows, was the decline in coal use.”

Bloomberg, whose charity is funding the Sierra Club’s coal work, today said the report’s results strengthen the U.S. position at the upcoming international climate change negotiations in Paris.

“The domestic reductions will give President Obama a strong negotiating hand at the U.N.’s climate summit in Paris,” he said, “and hopefully we can help lead the rest of the world in the same direction.”

The Sierra Club also found that the power sector’s projected emissions fall within 5 percent of the 2022 goal in the Clean Power Plan, which EPA finalized in August to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. The nation is poised to hit the Clean Power Plan’s 2030 carbon dioxide goal by 2025, the report said.

Congressional critics and stakeholders have launched both legal and legislative assaults against the Clean Power Plan, arguing that it would fundamentally change the way electricity is generated and distributed in the country and come with big compliance costs.

“A Democratically controlled Congress wisely rejected cap and trade in 2010,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), “and those rules are just as ill-advised today as they were five years ago.”

Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, yesterday evening credited the emissions decline to increased use of natural gas use and technological improvements in the gas sector.

“The real driver today to bring us to where we are, something we believe should be considered the real solution as we plan to go to Paris, talk about climate longer term,” Gerard said at an Atlantic Exchange event, “is really driven by cleaner-burning natural gas.”

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research today also credited natural gas for the majority of the nation’s CO2 emissions reductions.

In a policy brief, the group found that emissions peaked in 2007 and were 1,022 million metric tons lower in 2014 than if they would have grown at the same rate as the economy. Nineteen percent of the reduction came from shifting to natural gas for electricity generation, the group said.

Solar energy was responsible for only 1 percent of the CO2 reduction since 2007, the institute said.

“For all the attention and federal funds given to renewable energy, it remains a blip on America’s energy radar,” the brief says.