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US carbon emissions rose during Trump administration’s first three years: EPA

15 February 2021 Karin Rives

US Environmental Protection Agency data show the country's carbon emissions rose during President Donald Trump's first three years in office, disproving claims by his administration that emissions declined.

By 2019, increases in emissions from the transportation sector and the oil and natural gas industry had largely offset reductions from coal plant shutdowns and energy conservation gains in homes and businesses, according to greenhouse gas inventory data released 12 February.

The US produced 6,577 million metric tons (MMt) of carbon emissions in 2019, a 1.7 percent drop from 2018, when energy use and emissions rose sharply because of an unusually hot summer and cold winter, the draft report shows. But the country's total emissions in 2019 were still 121 MMt above where they were in 2017 when President Donald Trump took office, marking the highest level of carbon pollution the US generated in five years.

As recently as November, while crediting President Trump for leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said that "we have done more to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions over the past four years than our international competitors who cling to the ceremonial and arbitrary agreement." He also said a year ago that "based on preliminary data, we expect next year's report to show that the long-term downward trend will continue."

The lack of progress during the Trump years means the US fell farther behind in the race to slow climate change, David Doniger, a senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said 12 February.

"The Trump administration's rollbacks and inaction increased emissions and delayed the transition to cleaner energy sources, wasting valuable time," he said.

Oil, gas carbon footprint expanding

Likewise, the oil and gas industry has been vocal about its efforts to rein in emissions from drill sites, pipelines and refineries—and yet the EPA report shows that both carbon dioxide and methane emissions from the sector rose in 2019 as production soared. Output of oil rose nearly 13% and gas production nearly 10% that year, Energy Information Administration data show.

Carbon dioxide emissions from "gas systems" jumped 3 MMt to 36.9 MMt in 2019, "due primarily to increases in the production segment, where flaring emissions from associated gas flaring, tanks, and miscellaneous production flaring have increased over time," the EPA said. Between 2005 and 2019, carbon dioxide emissions from the industry soared 46%.

Carbon dioxide emissions from "petroleum systems," meanwhile, rose 18% in 2019 to 43.3 MMt.

And despite efforts by some industry players to plug leaks and rein in methane emissions, those highly potent emissions also rose nearly 4% to 156.6 MMt, said the report, "Draft US Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2019." The oil industry emitted 40.2 MMt of methane that year, also a 4% increase.

That reverses a long-term trend of declining methane emissions from oil and gas companies that the EPA said was achieved mainly thanks to a decrease in leaks from pipelines and distribution stations, and from a reduction in emissions from compressor stations. The nearly 157 MMt of methane released by gas systems in 2019 was still 4.3% below what the industry emitted in 2005, when production volumes were significantly smaller.

Methane has more than 80 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide in the short term, which is why scientists say methane releases must be reined in to stabilize Earth's climate. In 2019, methane made up 10% total US emissions with gas systems the second-largest source of such pollution after belching livestock.

Matthew Todd, director of the American Petroleum Institute's upstream program, said emissions rates have declined relative to gas production and should be viewed in that context. He also noted that a growing number of industry players are actively engaged in a new campaign to cut emissions.

"There is more work to be done, including efforts to reduce flaring, and that is what The Environmental Partnership's flare management program is all about," Todd said 12 February. "With this new initiative, companies large and small are taking action to reduce flare volumes and increase monitoring."

The big challenge: transportation

The oil and gas sector accounts for a relatively small share of the US' carbon footprint compared with the biggest challenge of all: transportation. As the Biden administration seeks to implement its ambitious climate change agenda, emissions from cars and trucks are a top priority for a reason.

The US' largest source of carbon, pollution from mainly passenger cars generated 1,843 MMt in 2019, a 2.7% year-on-year increase. Emissions from cars and trucks have been rising steadily over the past 30 years because of urban sprawl, low gasoline prices and more people traveling, the EPA reported.

The Trump administration in 2020 rolled back fuel efficiency standards developed under President Barack Obama for new passenger vehicles for the model years 2017-2025 and replaced it with a weaker standard. Biden ordered agencies on his first day in office to review that rollback.

The EPA and Department of Transportation are widely expected to propose a national fuel efficiency standard modeled after California's ambitious emission programs. Most major carmakers now support that plan.

While US fuel economy has improved since 1990, the number of vehicle miles traveled increased 47% by 2019, offsetting such gains, the EPA said. That means electric vehicles must be a major part of any future plan to reduce emissions from the transportation sector. EVs still make up only 2% of new car sales and cars on the road.

The Biden administration has pledged to replace the US government's fleet of 650,000 vehicles with electric models and to offer tax credits to encourage more Americans to switch to EVs. How fast that transition occurs will depend on how quickly the nation's network of public charging stations develops; there are only about 110,000 so far, according to a recent report by IHS Markit.

The EPA's preliminary 2019 emissions data could still be revised and is already more than a year old, while the 2020 data will likely show a steep decline in carbon pollution because of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Posted 15 February 2021 by Karin Rives, Senior Journalist, IHS Markit

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