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Who Were the Worst Climate Polluters in the US in 2021?

By Phil McKenna

The worst of the worst included a coal-fired power plant in Alabama, a coal mine in Pennsylvania and a nylon plant in Florida, recent EPA data shows.

U.S. greenhouse gas emissions climbed by 4.1 percent from major industrial sources in 2021, according to new data recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The increase is the largest year-on-year rise in emissions tallied across more than a decade of reporting and comes at a time when global climate pollution must quickly be curtailed to limit further warming.

The emissions, 2.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, were self-reported to the agency by more than 8,100 of the nation’s largest climate polluters under the agency’s mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The emissions represent about half of all U.S. climate pollution and the annual update provides the most comprehensive, site-by-site assessment of the nation’s largest polluters.

The increase in emissions came amid a rise in economic activity and industrial production following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. While emissions from large polluters—generally defined as facilities that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year—shot up in 2021, they were 5.25 percent lower than their pre-pandemic level in 2019.

Evan Gillespie, a partner with Industrious Labs, a recently formed environmental organization focused on decarbonizing heavy industry, said such swings in pollution have to cease in order to hit emission reduction targets under the Paris Climate agreement.

“We cannot have emissions linked to production,” Gillespie said.  “We have a lot of work to do over the next eight years to get industrial emissions on track.”


Andy Knott, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign for the nation’s central region, said he is seeing a lot of progress in the shutdown of large coal-fired power plants from many, but not all, electric utilities.


“When I look at the largest carbon polluters, many of them, the utilities that own them, don’t have plans to retire them anytime at all,” Knott said. “We need to retire all coal by 2030 and all fossil fuels in the electric sector by 2035.”

Carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change and CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas fired power plants were the largest source of emissions. However, other pollutants including methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigerators and air conditioners, were also significant sources of emissions. These “non-CO2” greenhouse gases are far more potent than carbon dioxide on a pound-for-pound basis and in many cases remain in the atmosphere for a relatively short time compared to CO2. Curbing their emissions is increasingly seen as a key to stopping near term warming.

The following is a list of the country’s top polluters for each of the leading greenhouse gases tracked by the EPA. Also included are some of the highest emitters for different sectors of the economy.

Carbon Dioxide: The James H. Miller Jr. power plant in Quinton, Alabama was the largest coal fired power plant in the U.S in terms of power generation in 2021 and was also the nation’s biggest emitter of CO2. The plant, owned by The Southern Company, emitted 20,834,019 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021. Company executives announced plans last year to shut down nearly 80 percentof its coal power capacity by 2028 on the way to having net-zero emissions by 2050. The planned shutdowns do not include the James H. Miller plant.

Methane: The Bailey Mine, a coal mine owned by Consol Energy in southwestern Pennsylvania is the largest single source of methane in the U.S. with 90,743 tons of methane emissions in 2021. The near-term climate impact of the emissions are equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 1.6 million automobiles, according to the EPA. Consol Energy does capture and destroy some additional methane emissions from the mine as part of a methane destruction pilot program.

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