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Stokes Co. plant among top US greenhouse gas emitters

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The Pine Hall Road Ash Landfill (foreground) sits on the banks of Belews Lake across Pine Hall Road from the Belews Creek Steam Station. Now closed, the wet ash disposal site is where Duke Power stored decades worth of the byproducts from the coal burning process at Belews Creek. (Walt Unks/Winston-Salem Journal)

WALNUT COVE, N.C. — Imagine taking 2.5 million cars off the road. For a year.

Doing so would eliminate the same amount of greenhouse gases sent into the air last year from the smokestacks of one coal-fired power plant owned by Duke Energy in Stokes County, in northwestern North Carolina.

In 2012, the Belews Creek Steam Station emitted about 12.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, those carbon-dioxide pollutants that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a wide body of scientists point to as climate-change culprits.

The amount made up about 19 percent of the total greenhouse gases — 65. 4 million metric tons — produced statewide by those industries reporting emissions to the EPA, including landfills, food processors and manufacturers. Of the 146 producers statewide of greenhouse gases that reported emissions to the EPA, only one other, the Roxboro Steam Electric Plant in north-central North Carolina, produced more: 13.3 million metric tons.

On the national stage of air polluters, the Belews Creek Steam Station also stands out. It is one of the largest contributors in the U.S. of greenhouse gas pollution, according to EPA data released last week.

In the United States, among the 7,800-plus entities that reported emissions to the EPA for 2012 that produced a combined 3.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, the Belews Creek Steam Station was the 22nd-largest producer.

By comparison, the 42 municipal landfills in North Carolina that reported to the EPA emitted a combined 2.5 million metric tons.

And those 2.5 million cars would have to drive 11,400 miles a year with a fuel economy of 21.5 miles per gallon to match the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the Belews power plant last year, according to an analysis of EPA data.

EPA stepping up its role

The new pollution numbers come as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, about two weeks ago, to review a legal challenge to an effort by the EPA, based on the Clean Air Act, to set new standards on “stationary sources,” such as power plants, manufacturers, and refineries, among other industries.

The American Petroleum Institute and a coalition of manufacturers hailed the move.

“The EPA is seeking to regulate U.S. manufacturing in a way that Congress never planned and never intended,” Harry Ng, API vice president and general counsel, said at the time.

“The Clean Air Act clearly only requires pre-construction permits for six specific emissions that impact national air quality — not greenhouse gases.

“That kind of overreach can have enormous implications on U.S. competitiveness and the prices that consumers pay for fuel and manufactured goods. We’re pleased that the court has agreed to review our petition — alongside several others — and we look forward to presenting our case,” he said.

Environmental groups also scored points, according to Kelly Martin, a senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

The Supreme Court denied industry and state petitions that challenged the EPA’s historic finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, she said. And the high court left standing the EPA’s “common sense and achievable emission standards for vehicles.”

On the question of stationary sources, the court granted a review on the question of “whether EPA permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases.”

“The EPA’s authority and decision to limit carbon pollution to protect public health has been repeatedly challenged by polluters and the Supreme Court has affirmed EPA’s authority multiple times, as it did again this time,” Martin said.

“The Court will focus only on narrow, technical questions regarding permits and processes, representing a win for public health. I see this decision as paving the way for sensible carbon pollution standards for power plants that will help address our responsibility to protect human health and the environment from the threat of climate disruption,” she said.

The greenhouse gas numbers were released as the EPA continues to ask for comments, through Nov. 8, from the public on its proposals to reduce emissions from new power plants built in the future.

The effort is based on a directive issued by President Barack Obama in June to further reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

“EPA is supporting President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by providing the high-quality data necessary to help guide common-sense solutions to address climate change,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said.

The EPA has been tasked with issuing carbon pollution standards and guidelines for modified and existing power plants by no later than June 1. Final standards and guidelines are set to be issued no later than June 1, 2015. The EPA, acting under the Clean Air Act, will require states to submit their respective implementation plans by June 1, 2016.

Stricter regulations sit well with most North Carolinians, according to a survey conducted by Public Policy Poll among 803 voters statewide Oct. 11-12, during the federal government shutdown.

In one section of the survey, respondents were informed that the “EPA is developing standards to reduce the carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants.” Asked if they would say they “support or oppose a government shutdown that interferes with developing carbon pollution limits,” 70 percent said they were opposed and 30 percent were supportive.

In another section, respondents were asked to “think about the role the EPA plays” and then asked if they “think the EPA is doing too much, not enough, or just the right amount to protect health and the environment.” Forty-three percent chose “not enough”; 28 percent went with “too much”; 22 said “about right” and 7 percent were not sure. Said another way, 65 percent view the EPA as either not doing enough or doing about the right amount in carrying out its role as a regulatory body.

Cleaner than it used to be

Some progress has been made toward reducing greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gas emissions from power plants have decreased 10 percent since the EPA started collecting data in 2010.

“This is due to a switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation and a slight decrease in electricity production,” said McCarthy the EPA administrator. “Fossil-fuel fired power plants remain the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. With just under 1,600 facilities emitting over 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, these plants account for roughly 40 percent of total U.S. carbon pollution.”

Even as Belews Creek Steam Station remains standing as one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases in the state and the United States, it also has been decreasing over the years the amount of gases it emits.

Duke Energy is doing its part, said Erin Culbert, a company spokeswoman. Since 2008, the company’s fleet of power plants has dropped its emissions by nearly 20 percent, she said, primarily due to coal-plant retirements, new gas plants and reduced demand for power.

“It is important to note there is no commercially available technology to control or reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants. Belews Creek is one of the larger emitters in the state because of its size,” she said.

The Belews power plant is the company’s second-largest in the Carolinas, with a capacity to generate up to 2,220 megawatts, enough to bring power to nearly 1.8 million average homes at full load. The plant has about 160 Duke Energy workers — 220 people if you include supplemental contract employees, company officials say.

Air emissions have dropped in part because the power plant is equipped with some of the most advanced air emissions controls in the industry, Culbert said.

“We’ve invested more than $1 billion at the station to lower emissions and produce reliable, cleaner power,” she said.

“Duke Energy customers continue to benefit from more affordable rates because coal remains part of our diverse fuel mix,” she said.

By Bertrand M.Gutierrez/Winston-Salem Journal