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Attacking Carbon Pollution: It’s Transportation’s Turn

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Owner David Gaier PR

David Gaier is a communications professional, former spokesman for NRG Energy and PSEG Long Island, and consultant to energy advisory agencies. His 30+-year career includes crisis communications...

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It’s an article of conventional wisdom that fossil-fueled electric generating stations, and particularly coal plants, are “the” villain in the war against global warming and the resulting climate change. When we’re having 100-year storms annually, and seeing consistent sea-level rise, massive droughts, and record-high ambient temperatures, all but the most hardened climate deniers agree that we have a problem, perhaps one bordering on existential.

Power plants are convenient targets. They’re large, sometimes visible for miles, with massive stacks, cooling towers, substations, visible steam and emissions, and in some cases massive coal piles moved around by bulldozers, ramps and chutes. Yet they’re also essential to our way of life. In 2019, 38% of our electricity was generated from natural gas, 23% from coal, 20% from nuclear plants, and just 17% from renewables, ranging from wind power at 7.3% to hydro at 6.6% and solar at just 1.8% according to the US Energy Information Administration.

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These plants are also the anchors of the bulk power system that keep us in 21st century comfort rather than the middle ages. And they’re often major employers and sources of tax revenue that keep communities and school systems solvent.

But they’re certainly polluters, spewing carbon dioxide and the so-called criteria pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. Many of these plants are embedded within residential communities and viewed as a blight on the landscape and the cause of illness, asthma, and reduced property values among other things.

And yet the power sector isn’t, in fact, the biggest climate offender. According to the US EPA, Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation account for about 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of U.S. GHG emissions. Other estimates go as high as 30-35%. Worse still, between 1990 and 2018 GHG emissions in the transportation sector increased more in absolute terms than any other sector, says EPA.

Transportation emissions have been addressed for years at the Federal level—promoting the use of more renewable fuels, taking steps to set a GHG standard for aircraft, greening the federal vehicle fleet, helping the freight transportation sector improve supply chain efficiency, and informing consumers on vehicle fuel economy and advanced technology cars. EPA also provides information on emission reduction strategies, national policies and regulations, incentive-based and voluntary programs, funding sources, transportation conformity, and other assistance to help states and local areas achieve their air quality and transportation objectives.

And on December 21, a group of eastern U.S. states launched a regional cap-and-invest program, the bipartisan Transportation and Climate Initiative Program (TCI-P), similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative, via a signed Memorandum of Agreement among Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C.

Eight other states in the region that didn’t sign are nonetheless participating at one level or another, [already] “taking action through working groups focused on regional priorities, such as clean vehicles and fuels. Several TCI-P states are also working together to explore potential regional policies to improve transportation systems and reduce pollution.” Their plans are to cut greenhouse gas pollution from motor vehicles in the region by an estimated 26% from 2022 to 2032, generate a total of more than $3 billion dollars over ten years for the participating jurisdictions to invest in equitable, less-polluting transportation options and to help energize economic recovery.  

The Initiative’s announcement asserts “If all of the TCI jurisdictions eventually choose to implement the TCI-P, total proceeds available for investment could exceed $2 billion annually.” In addition, a consortium of businesses says the initiative will prioritize emissions reductions in overburdened and underserved communities that are disproportionately burdened by pollution and have the least access to reliable transportation options.

Amid some cries that the TCI-P is merely a poorly-disguised gas tax, that same consortium says it’s instead a carbon-pricing system of allowances, and unlike a gas tax, states must use their portion of proceeds solely on reducing pollution from the transportation sector.

Notably, New York and New Jersey did not sign. According to POLITICO, “the proposal faced opposition from environmental justice groups who were skeptical of a market-based policy without clear guarantees of reduced pollution in the communities where truck depots and distribution hubs exacerbate illnesses linked to poor air quality.” POLITICO added “New York could consider joining TCI in line with recommendations from the state’s Climate Action Council, which won’t move forward with a scoping plan for another year. In New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation on Monday are set to brief stakeholders on a clean transportation plan, the details of which are sparse.”

Officials in other states that did not sign the MOU have indicated ambivalence to a full-throttle move ahead, on account of costs and a questionable return on investment. And predictably, three trade groups representing retail fuels urged officials in northeastern states not to join. As for Massachusetts, WBUR reports a survey that concluded 72% of voters in Massachusetts are in favor of the state joining the Initiative.

The TCI could, if fully implemented, finally make a difference in a sector that has for too long ignored its own massive contributions to carbon pollution. But if the other “participants” don’t get on board, this vehicle may soon coast to a stop.

 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 23, 2020

Power plants are convenient targets. They’re large, sometimes visible for miles, with massive stacks, cooling towers, substations, visible steam and emissions, and in some cases massive coal piles moved around by bulldozers, ramps and chutes.

Interesting observation that a plant's visibility and image is what might make them bigger targets. I'd also say that while individuals might try to reduce their energy use, they can throw their hands up and say 'what can you do' about power plant emissions and blame them, whereas the focus on transportation might require more inward reflection that they are the ones driving the emitting vehicles 

John Miller's picture
John Miller on Dec 25, 2020

Matt, as you are aware, what most non-Technical Individuals don’t understand, is that the white plumes seen emitted from all Power Plant stacks is due to steam from ‘stack (emissions) scrubbers’, which remove the vast majority of hazardous pollutants from the stack emissions.  The visible emissions from ‘cooling towers’ are of course, 100% water vapor, and irrelevant pollutants. 

Yes, you are correct, the emissions levels of truly hazardous pollutants (SOX, NOX, particulates, etc.) of all countries are largely due to power, transportation & heating fuels consumption by Residents and Commercial & Industrial Sectors.  Addressing Transportations petroleum consumption is directional a definite solution to reducing many emissions, including carbon dioxide, but what non-Technical Individuals also likely don’t understand, is that the ‘full-lifecycle’ emissions of converting/replacing ICE vehicles to EV’s is not all that significant in the near future.  Yes, EV’s ‘full lifecycle’s carbon emissions’ don’t have anywhere near ‘zero net emissions’, as most non-Technical Resident’s & Politian’s understand or generally believe.

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Dec 28, 2020

Vehicles ate a big issue . Yet we need to work on every major pollution sources. We can't just let one slide because another is a bigger part of the pollution crisis. Even small things matter. 

In fact the advances in electric vehicle batteries are helping the GRID and all forms of power production. The batteries are being added to the GRID  by the Mega watt. 

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Jan 18, 2021

Thanks for the interesting and informative post David.  There is no question that to achieve transition to renewables and to see marked change in emission and global warming levels, we need to execute changes in all sectors, from utilities to transportation to CHP to heavy industry and agriculture and many more. Mud slinging as to who is the bigger polluter is ineffective and wasting valuable time that we sorely need to spend setting policies and modifying processes and equipment so as to eliminate emissions and reduce global temperatures.  As Greta Thunberg resolutely reminds us, the empty words and inaction of policy makers are a panacea that lull the public into thinking that we are making progress when in many cases we are in fact caving in to lobbyists that push in the wrong direction. We need to single out and praise every positive step in the right direction so as to set examples and replicate them exponentially to eliminate emissions in EVERY sector in EVERY region around the world and AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Anything less than that is an injury to the legacy we leave to the generations that will follow us. 

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