Ever wondered who the big greenhouse-gas emitters are in your neck of the woods? The answer is now just a click away.
The US Environmental Protection Agency today unveiled a new website that identifies most of the nation's biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. It lets you, for example:
— Click near Macon, Ga., and home in on the nation's largest single-point source of greenhouse gases: the Scherer power plant (actually four huge coal-burning facilities). They pumped out almost 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010 — plus some nitrous oxide and methane gas — to keep the lights on in the region.
— Click on the icon near Petaluma, Calif., to learn that the local landfill produces 133,000 metric tons of methane, which contributes to both smog and global warming.
The agency was compelled by law to collect and distribute this data to the public. And it's not just a starting point for a science fair project. David Doniger at the Natural Resources Defense Council says that "armed with this right-to-know information, people can demand to know what company executives or elected officials are going to do to curb this pollution."
But what companies can do about it is not often very much. The vast majority of emissions are in the form of carbon dioxide from power plants, which mostly burn coal. Old power plants can be tweaked to become more efficient, which can reduce emissions, but only by a few percent.
Carbon dioxide is not a byproduct of burning, like other pollutants. It's the main product. So you can't do much about it no matter how hard you try. You can't put on scrubbers or emissions controls the way you can to limit mercury, sulfur gases and other byproducts.
A coal plant converted to burn natural gas could cut its carbon dioxide emissions in half, but at great expense. And in the long run it might be possible to capture and bury the carbon dioxide, but that technology is expensive and not ready for prime time.
One other thing about the map that displays emissions from large facilities: It accounts for only about half of all the emissions from the United States. The other half? Those come mostly from tailpipes, chimney flues, trucks, planes and countless smaller operations burning fossil fuels from coast to coast.
Even if it's impossible to pinpoint these endless smaller sources, you can at least see who supplies commodities like natural gas, as it flows through the supply chain on the way to your home furnace. That's a separate database at the EPA website: click here for that.
(Richard Harris is a correspondent on NPR's science desk.)