PERI’s Economics Chair Michael Ash breaks down which companies ranked as top emitters of greenhouse gases and what this means for the future of climate change policy
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. Researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have just released a new edition of the Greenhouse 100 Index. It ranks U.S. industries based on the quantity of greenhouse gases they emit into the atmosphere. Their work is largely based on 2014 data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas reporting program, and PERI researchers have also done an analysis of emissions for each company’s individual facilities and calculated the percentages of low-income and minority populations living within ten miles of said facility. To help us break down the numbers and discuss what’s changed and what has remained the same from the previous index, we have one of the authors of the Greenhouse 100 Index, Michael Ash. He is the chair of the economics department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he joins us now from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Thank you so much for joining us. MICHAEL ASH: Thank you for having me, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: So Michael, let’s take a look at the index. Right away, we see topping the list are three electrical power companies: Duke Energy, American Electric Power, and Southern Company. Can you just break down for us what the source of these emissions are, and where are they primarily geographically in the country? ASH: So that’s a great question, thanks. So those three companies are electrical energy producers. So they burn fossil fuels, in many cases coal, to produce electricity that homes and businesses use. Their holdings are spread out all over. They have high representation in the Midwest. But they’re also widespread. So there may well be a facility owned by Duke or American Electric Power or Southern Corporation, right near you. Right, right near you or your viewers. As I said, they burn fossil fuel that produces electrical, electric energy, that all of us use all of the time. It’s quite remarkable. These three companies alone produce 5 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. That means not just greenhouse gas emissions from electrical power production, but from all sources, including, including automobiles and, you know, various private home heading and things like that. It’s a remarkable concentration at the top. DESVARIEUX: How do you know all of this? Can you just tell us a little bit about your process, how you came to your findings. What was your method, essentially? ASH: Thanks for asking. So since 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency has gathered information from a large number of facilities, basically a full count of facilities that produce greenhouse gases. The facilities themselves are required to report, so the data are mandated, but self-reported, from facilities that produce greenhouse gases. And again, that–the list is dominated by electrical power generation, but industrial facilities, steel makers, auto makers, chemical producers also appear on the list. So the companies report these data to USEPA, and they report them on a facility by facility basis. So they might say, well, we have a particular coal burning power plant outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, and this is the amount of–this is the amount of greenhouse gases that produces. At PERI, we take these data straight from EPA as published. And we just add them up by company. So it sounds like a very small amount of value added. The data are coming straight from EPA. By connecting the facilities to the companies that own them we give a, a lever or a basis for activists, for socially responsible investors, for environmentally-focused managers to assess corporate performance in the area of greenhouse gases. Because it’s really at the company level that the decisions are made that produce these, these greenhouse gases which cause climate change. DESVARIEUX: And you also looked at individual facilities owned by these top-100 polluters and calculated the percentages of low-income and minority populations living within ten miles of each facility. What did you find, and was there a consistent pattern nationally? ASH: So that’s a great question. So first of all, I might, I want to speak to your viewers and say well, you might think it’s strange to take a look at the local populations around the facilities, because greenhouse gases are really a global problem. At some level it doesn’t really matter where a metric tonne of carbon dioxide is released. It’s going to have the same effect on the, on the heat-retaining capacity of the atmosphere. The same contribution to global warming. So the reason that we look at populations, and particularly we look at vulnerable populations around facilities, is because when we move towards reducing greenhouse gases, as we must if we’re going to survive as a species, those reductions are going to happen in particular places, where they’re often accompanied by reductions in other toxic pollutants. So we can think of carbon dioxide as going along with a set of other local toxins that produce a variety of health ailments, from cancer to asthma, to, to aggravating heart conditions. So we’re interested in the–we’re interested in who lives near these facilities not only because they’re greenhouse gases but also because there are other pollutants being released at the same time. So taking a look at the list as a whole, we find perhaps not surprisingly that people of color, and people living at or below the federal poverty line, are disproportionately–live disproportionately close to these facilities that produce greenhouse gases. And, I need to underline, other pollutants. That’s something that we see quite systematically. It’s not true in every case. But it is, but it is a, it is a solid pattern of environmental injustice. DESVARIEUX: And certainly would you say that the majority of these facilities are in low-income, minority communities? ASH: I believe the majority of these facilities are in areas that are disproportionately, that is to say above national averages, in the representation of minorities or low-income people in the surrounding population. DESVARIEUX: Okay, Michael. Let’s pause the conversation here. In part two, let’s tackle why we didn’t see some of these fossil fuel giants like Shell, ExxonMobil, why they weren’t at the top of this greenhouse gas index. So let’s pause the conversation. Thank you so much for being with us. ASH: Certainly. It was my pleasure, thank you, thank you for having me on, Jessica. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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