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Michael Ash: Low income and minority populations disproportionately impacted by greenhouse gas release

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The PERI Report. Today we’re going to be talking about the top 100 climate polluters in the country.

Now joining us is Michael Ash. He’s a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research focuses on inequality and well-being in the United States and other advanced economies.

Thank you for joining us, Michael.


NOOR: What can you tell us about this report?

ASH: So this report is the first of its kind. It brings together data from the U.S. EPA on greenhouse gas emissions.

And I want to give a lot of credit to U.S. EPA. They take this project about 90 percent of the way, maybe even 95 percent of the way. They have the mandate and they have the fight for it to get industrial facilities to report the amount of greenhouse gases that they release, and they compile that information on a facility-by-facility basis.

So the Political Economy Research Institute Corporate Toxics Information Project takes the data one step farther, and we have closed the missing link. So EPA has done this great job collecting data at the facility level. What we do at PERI is we add the data up to the level of the company. So that gives the public a go-to entity, a go-to person, I guess I would say, since we all know corporations are people–a go-to person with whom to discuss the greenhouse gas releases. So when it’s all fragmented by facility, it’s very hard to think about it as a matter of policy, either of corporate policy or public policy; but bringing the data together at the level of the corporation, we’re able to move the dialog forward so that we can talk about the decision-making entities that are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

And these decision-making entities are very important. The top three companies on the list, which are American Electric Power, Duke Energy, and Southern Corporation, are together responsible for about 6 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. And that’s 6 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from every source. So it’s an enormous amount. They release about as much greenhouse gases as 77 million cars. Each one of those corporations releases more than 100 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually.

So the good news here is this gives us somewhere to go where we can have real leverage. If we could improve the corporate environmental performance for these firms, we really stand a chance of intervening in the amount of greenhouse gases that are being emitted.

Now, I don’t want to put all blame on the corporations. They have customers, and the customers buy goods from these corporations that can’t be made without the greenhouse gas emissions.

So there’s going to be two sides to this equation. We’re going to have to look at the industrial processes that the companies are using. We’re also going to have to look at consumption and the amount of electricity, basically, that U.S. consumers draw, ask ourselves, are there ways to either consume less or consume more efficient.

NOOR: Now talk a little bit about how you compile this data. Where did you find this data? Is it easily accessible?

ASH: So these data are easily accessible on our website. I encourage you to visit And the data come directly from EPA.

It’s kind of interesting about these data. These are data that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency collects on our behalf. The EPA has mandated that almost all industrial facilities above a certain size report the amount of greenhouse gases that they emit to the atmosphere. That’s for facilities in the U.S. And the EPA takes it a lot of the way. They’ve made the mandate. They’ve collected the data. They’ve organized the data.

The important piece that they don’t add, and I think it’s a real shortcoming and their process, which is remedied by our report, is connecting the facility level, you know, that power plant down the road from you, the facility level data on greenhouse gas emissions to the companies that own the facilities. And I think that if we’re going to have a policy approach to greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to be critical for all the stakeholders involved–citizens, consumers, responsible corporate managers, and the government–to really focus on the decision-makers, on the corporate entities that are making the decisions about the industrial processes that release greenhouse gases.

So EPA’s data-gathering effort is laudable, and it was really a struggle for the EPA to get the right to collect these data, but kind of that last, sort of the last ten feet, which we [inaud.] I think is a very important addition, to let us focus on the corporate decision-making parties that are responsible for these emissions.

NOOR: Now, you also tallied up the percentage of low-income and minority populations in the vicinity affected by these plants. What can you tell us about that data?

ASH: So that’s a great question, and we take the distribution of environmental hazards very seriously.

Now, something interesting about greenhouse gases is that really every little bit of greenhouse gas emitted is a global problem. It’s not a local problem. So, you know, if you live closer to a greenhouse gas facility, the carbon dioxide that that plant is emitting is not really a problem for you. However, these facilities almost always also release other pollutants–we call those co-pollutants–that come along with the carbon dioxide, and many of those are a local problem. Some include, for example, particulate matter, which is a grave risk for pulmonary diseases like asthma, for example.

So we wanted to draw attention to the disproportionate burden on people of color and on poor people of having these large industrial facilities, these large polluting industrial facilities near them. So you can visit our list at And for any of these facilities, it’s possible to tell what the social and demographic makeup of the surrounding population is like. And I think, you know, not surprisingly, we find that poor people and people of color are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollutants. So, again, it’s not the greenhouse gas that’s the real problem for that local population; it’s the other pollutants that almost invariably come with the greenhouse gas.

NOOR: So in this top 100 list, talk about some of the most surprising findings that you uncovered.

ASH: So, well, I mean, maybe one of the surprises is that there aren’t enormous surprises. The top of the list is dominated by electrical power generation. Right? It’s burning the coal or the natural gas to produce electrical energy to, you know, power our homes and businesses. That is the overwhelming producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Also high towards the top of the list we find quite a few facilities that process and refine fuels.

Now, when they’re at the top of this list, this is for the actual emissions that these companies do. We’re not even thinking about the fuel that they sell at the gas station that then becomes an automobile emission. So, for example, Exxon Mobil is high on the list, and that is for the greenhouse gas releases from their refineries and other industrial facilities alone, not for all of the fuels that they introduce into the economy that then become greenhouse gas emissions from, you know, mobile sources or people’s households.

So in that top 20 of the greenhouse 100, again, it’s utterly dominated by electrical power producers and companies that handle the refining process fossil fuels.

Once you hit the end of the top 20, you start to get some industrial concerns. So, for example, I think U.S. Steel maybe is ranked number 21, and that’s an example of an industrial facility where just through the sheer magnitude of their operations, you know, the amount of heat that they have to generate to undertake their production, that lands them on that list.

NOOR: So what do you hope the public does with this information now that you’ve released it?

ASH: Well, that’s a great question. Environmental Protection Agency, again, gathered these data at the facility level. We’ve aggregated up to level of the company. And one of the advantages of that is that stakeholders–citizens, government regulators, community activists, socially responsible investors–now have go-to organizations or go-to people with whom to talk about policy to improve America’s greenhouse gas performance.

Some of this is pretty hard. Right? So when an electrical power company is producing greenhouse gases, they’re not doing it, you know, out of spite or for fun, often even because there’s a better industrial process that they could use.

So, that electrical power is power that we use in our homes and businesses. So we really need a comprehensive approach to the control of greenhouse gas emissions.

I think it’s helpful to know who’s doing it, and in many cases there may be industrial processes that can be improved. Coal, for example, is a much, much dirtier–from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions–way to generate electricity then is, say, natural gas. Those are both fossil fuels and those both release greenhouse gases. But we may be able to bring pressure to corporations to upgrade their facilities to the absolutely most efficient, least polluting processes.

Beyond that, I think we need to talk about policies that are going to help us move beyond to the fossil fuel economy. A lot of those will probably have to do with pricing the use of carbon, say, for example, through carbon taxes or through cap-and-dividend type plans.

NOOR: Now, are there certain companies that the public should be concerned about more than others?

ASH: They’re of more concern from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions. They’re also–actually, they tend to be the processes that are of grave local concern as well. So coal-burning power plants are really dinosaurs–or dinosaur burners, I guess you could say–that release an awful lot of greenhouse gases per unit of electricity. So when you look at the top of the list, I think that the top three companies on the list produce something like 6 percent, 5 or 6 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s 5 percent of the absolute total, not just the industrial total of everything that comes out of automobiles, out of household use of electricity, those top three corporations.

So I think, you know, I would encourage stakeholders–socially responsible investors, consumer groups–to take a look at those companies and ask if they are using the best available technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emission. So, again, I don’t–so if there are particular facilities that are especially inefficient that produce, you know, an awful lot of greenhouse gas per unit of electricity that they produce–so the top three country companies on the list are responsible for as much as pollution as 77 million automobiles. Those companies are American Electric Power, Duke Energy, and Southern Corporation. So I think we want to take a look at those companies facility by facility and figure out if there are facilities that they own that could be doing a better job, that could be using more modern processes or less greenhouse gas rich fuels to produce electricity.

But at the same time, I think we have to realize that they’re providing electricity into a market that is very willing to buy it. So I think we really need to think about systemic approaches, approaches that are going to let the users of electricity know, through prices, about the greenhouse gases that are being emitted while that electricity is being made. And so there are some good policies in front of us like carbon taxation or cap-and-dividend systems that will let consumers understand the environmental impacts of the choices that they make.

So we want a kind of a multipronged approach here. We want to take a look at individual companies, the facilities that they own, and whether those can be improved, and we also want to think about this systemically to make sure that we’re setting good policies that prepare us for a less carbon intensive future.

NOOR: So, Michael, these are obviously very powerful corporations. What kind of obstacles might the public face in trying to regulate or limit their emissions around the country?

ASH: Well, we’ve seen over the last five years it’s enormously difficult to get greenhouse gas legislation passed through Congress. There are enormous bipartisan blockages on moving greenhouse gas legislation, so committed are some parts of this country to the types of industrial processes that release greenhouse gas. So I think that we consumers and citizens have our work cut out for us. I hope that by increasing awareness of the specific sources of this greenhouse gas pollution, that the greenhouse 100 is contributing to public debate and progress on limiting greenhouse gas releases.

NOOR: Well, thank you for joining us, Michael.

ASH: Jaisal, thank you very much for having me. Those were–a great interview.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ash

Professor Michael Ash is chair of the Economics department at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His areas of expertise are labor, health, and environmental economics, examined primarily through quantitative models. Ash's main interests in environmental policy include disclosure and right-to-know laws, greenhouse-gas policy, and environmental justice. At UMass, Ash co-directs the Corporate Toxics Information Project of the Political Economy Research Institute, which publishes the Toxic 100, an index that identifies the top U.S. toxic polluters among the world's largest corporations.