STEVE INSKEEP, host:
President Bush and other leaders of the big industrial nations are in Germany for their annual summit. A big item on their agenda is how to put limits on the greenhouse gasses that are warming the earth.
The United States, by the way, is the world's leading producer of those gasses, which can lead to a question: What is the one single thing that produces the most greenhouse gasses here in the United States?
So as part of our Climate Connections series with National Geographic, NPR's Nell Boyce went hunting for America's greenhouse gas champion.
NELL BOYCE: What I wanted was to sit somewhere and see massive amounts of greenhouse gasses being pumped into the atmosphere. Okay, things like carbon dioxide and methane are invisible, but still. I wanted to find the big one -the top dog for greenhouse gases. So I called the Environmental Protection Agency and asked Dina Kruger. She runs the EPA's Climate Change Division.
Ms. DINA KRUGER (Director, Climate Change Division, Environmental Protection Agency): I don't know who the top greenhouse gas emitter in the nation is. We don't have like a ranking like this is number one, this is umber two, this place is number three. No, we don't develop a facility-by-facility inventory of the greenhouse gas emissions. We do it at a national level.
BOYCE: As a nation, the EPA says we spew out the equivalent of around seven billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. But that's everything from cars to landfills to power plants. If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty and find the biggest single emitter, it's hard. The government doesn't require facilities to report their emissions.
The government does offer some options for companies that want to do that. One program is called Voluntary Reporting of Greenhouse Gases. It brought me to a lovely front porch in Mount Rainier, Maryland.
(Soundbite of cat meowing)
BOYCE: Meow, meow. Hello. Where I met two cats named Peppin and Bailey.
Mr. MIKE TAYLOR (Participant, Voluntary Reporting of Greenhouse Gases): Sometimes Bailey meows about coming outside.
BOYCE: I also met their owner.
Mr. TAYLOR: My name is Mike Taylor.
BOYCE: Mike's interested in energy issues. A few years back, he heard about this voluntary program from a friend, who said hey, we should report our emissions to the government.
Mr. TAYLOR: And everyone said ha-ha. Yeah, that would be funny. And I don't think that person ever did, but I decided to.
BOYCE: So today, if you look in the database, you'll find information on Mike Taylor's paltry emissions from his car and his house. You'll also find reports from a couple hundred major companies.
Mr. TAYLOR: The who's who of energy users - Ford and Duke Energy, and a bunch of companies and car companies.
BOYCE: There's also a furniture store in Nebraska, a laundry in North Carolina. But experts say this voluntary reporting system is useless for my quest. Jonathan Pershing works on greenhouse gas policies with a think tank called the World Resources Institute.
Dr. JONATHAN PERSHING (Director, World Resources Institute): Supposing you wanted to find out who the biggest emitters were, who the best players in this sector were, this data - by virtue of both being incomplete and voluntary in terms of what you report - is not likely to give it to you.
Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)
BOYCE: Thank you.
Unidentified Woman: Senator Klobuchar's office. Can you please hold?
XT: BOYCE: Amy Klobuchar thinks the U.S. needs a mandatory reporting system. She's a Democratic senator from Minnesota. We talked in her office on Capitol Hill. She says if we're ever going to limit greenhouse gas emissions, we'll need to know exactly who is emitting what.
Senator AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): There are a number of voluntary reporting requirements. Sometimes there's mandatory ones, but it's just a patchwork, to the point where 31 states have now called for a national carbon registry.
BOYCE: She and Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, have just introduced a new bill to create that. It would require facilities to report, using the same system that's already in place for many pollutants.
Unidentified Woman: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is…
BOYCE: If that proposal becomes law, the U.S. will become a lot more like its northern neighbor.
Unidentified Woman: Air Canada, a member of the Star Alliance, welcomes you onboard.
BOYCE: Canada requires all of its biggest emitters to report.
Mr. CHARLES ELLIOTT (Environment Canada): (French Spoken)
BOYCE: Charles Elliott works near Ottawa for Environment Canada, a government agency. He says all the information is publicly available.
Mr. ELLIOTT: You can just go and click on this search data tab.
BOYCE: It's all on a handy Web site. What landfill in Quebec sends out the most methane? It's the Saint-Sophie landfill. Which cement plant in Canada spews out the most greenhouse gases?
Mr. ELLIOTT: That's - so that would be St. Marys Cement in Bowmanville, reported close to 1.5 megatons.
BOYCE: Tell me, do you happen to know offhand what the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases is in Canada?
Mr. ELLIOTT: Yes, actually. That would be the Nanticoke Power Generation facility, which is an electricity plant that's here in the Province of Ontario.
BOYCE: So I went to go see it. And when you're standing right up next to it, it doesn't seem all that impressive. I mean, there are the big power lines, but it just looks like a factory here by the lake. It's got two big smokestacks, and they don't seem to be emitting anything. There's no smoke coming out. But in reality, there's 17 million tons of greenhouse gases being thrown out of these things a year. That's a lot.
Now, Canada isn't collecting all this information just for kicks. It's the first step towards setting limits. And Charles Elliott says the numbers get attention.
Mr. ELLIOTT: Certainly, it's educational for people, I think, to have this data available to them. Otherwise, you'd just drive by it and just say, oh, that's a coal power plant.
BOYCE: Some environmentalists want a similar education for Americans. Tom Natan, at the National Environmental Trust, says that in the past, public disclosure has been a powerful force in getting companies to reduce air pollution.
Mr. TOM NATAN (Research Director, National Environmental Trust): There's enormous pressure - when you know you're in the top 10 or the top 100 of the country - not to be in that top group anymore.
BOYCE: So, who might top that list in the United States? Well, for now, we can only guess. If we're like Canada, it might be our biggest coal-fired power plant. And it turns out under an old provision of the Clean Air Act, power plants do have to tell the government about their releases of one greenhouse gas - carbon dioxide.
On that list, for three years in a row, the top of the heap is the Robert W. Scherer Power Plant near Macon, Georgia. I'm going to Georgia anyway this month, so I might just drive by and take a look.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
INSKEEP: We have more on Climate Connections. You can see how the U.S. military is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on Wild Chronicles, seen on public television.