Why Fossil Fuel Giants Did Not Top the ‘Greenhouse 100 Index’

PERI’s Economics Chair Michael Ash explains the relation between a lower ranking and the use of renewable energy

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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 addition of the Greenhouse 100 Index. Now joining us is 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. Thanks so much for being with us again, Michael.

MICHAEL ASH: Thanks for having me on, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So Michael, one of the big surprises in this index that I found was that many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, household names like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, they didn’t make the top 10. can you just explain to us, why is that?

ASH: So that’s a great question, thanks for asking. The Greenhouse 100 focuses on releases at the facility level. So we’re talking about burning of fossil fuels and the release of greenhouse gases that happen right there at the facility. And so the top of our list is dominated by electrical power generators. These are facilities that burn fossil fuels, coal, and other fossil fuels to produce electricity for homes and businesses.

Refiners are producing a product, gasoline, that’s about to be burned. It’s going to be burned mostly in individual automobiles and companies’ trucks. So the release is going to happen after the product of the refinery is purchased and, purchased and consumed. So to get the full picture of greenhouse gases, we need to take a look at the cradle-to-grave lifestyle of the fossil fuel. In the Greenhouse 100 we’re focusing on the actual production of greenhouse gases right there in the facility, with again, electrical power generation at the top of the list. But other things that we use every day, like gasoline, is not included in the Greenhouse 100.

DESVARIEUX: Gotcha, gotcha. Let’s talk a little bit about the EPA’s new rules on greenhouse gas emissions related to power plants. Do you see there could be a decline in some of the top polluters no longer being electrical companies because of these new regulations?

ASH: So, well, at the top of the list I think we are seeing declines, as coal declines as an important–from its enormous importance in U.S. energy production. I believe it was over 50 percent as recently as early 2000s. Now it’s, I believe, below 40 percent of U.S. electrical production.

So we’re seeing the decline of coal. Coal is a very, very dense greenhouse gas emitter. You’ve got a lot of greenhouse gases per unit of energy with coal. So, while I think we need a more complete transition to renewables and using energy efficiency, the shift from coal to other less greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels has reduced some emissions at the very top of the list.

DESVARIEUX: Have you noticed any new players, any new big polluters?

ASH: So no, I think the list is pretty stable. Again, these companies will often shuffle ownership. One facility may–one company may sell off a facility to another. But the top of the list has been relatively stable. These are–and they’re stable for a reason. I think that it’s a reason that we need to confront. These are facilities, these are companies that are producing electricity that homes and businesses use.

So while there are–there are maybe, there are better ways to produce electrical energy, in particular moving away from coal and increasingly moving towards renewables, there is also a demand-side pull that means these electrical producers are at the top of the list, that demand-side pull is the dependence of homes and businesses on the electricity that’s being produced. I think it points to the idea that we really need a national plan for moving towards non-greenhouse gas-emitting sources of energy.

DESVARIEUX: I’m glad you mention a plan because I was going to ask you, what do you plan on doing with this information? What do you hope comes out of this investigation?

ASH: So the hope in the Greenhouse 100, as with our companion Toxic 100 Index, is to inform and empower communities, activists, socially responsible investors, environmentally sensitive managers, to take action. To use the information as a source, as a basis of leverage, as a tool for assessing the performance of U.S.-based companies in these environmental domains. It allows us to have a lens into how these companies are performing to track changes over time, and to ideally work–companies that are doing better with additional investment, and potentially to punish companies that are not cleaning up their act by withholding, for example, investor’s funds, or by seeking regulatory action.

DESVARIEUX: And considering there’s a growing movement for colleges, for institutions to divest from fossil fuels, this could certainly be fuel for them to make their case, it sounds like.

ASH: Yes. So using this list, it’s very easy to track what companies are particularly salient greenhouse gas emitters. And again, I hope that this will prove a tool to engage in public dialog. Dialog with those companies, dialog with those regulators, and in action in financial markets and in regulatory forums.

DESVARIEUX: All right, Michael Ash. Thank you so much for being with us.

ASH: Thanks for having me on, Jessica. I appreciate it.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.

End

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