Over the past nine years, major Oklahoma industries that rely on fossil fuels have steadily reduced their carbon output, according to EPA data.
Most of those reductions have come because of federal regulations on and the phasing out of coal-fired power generators, according to the data.
But the numbers don’t take into account all sources of greenhouse gas, which may have a significant impact on those possible gains, environmental organizations warn.
Between 2011 and 2019, Oklahoma industries reduced total reported carbon dioxide emissions in the state by 30 percent, or 20.8 million tons of carbon, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2019, Oklahoma industries reported releasing a total of 51.3 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
Oklahoma does not cap greenhouse gas emissions. Though most of Oklahoma’s average electrical generation comes from natural gas-fired generators, the most recent data shows wind and solar surpassing natural gas for electrical generation in the state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Increases of carbon dioxide, as well as other greenhouse gases such as methane, in the atmosphere are the main driver of rising global temperatures, according to climate scientists, and that rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels.
Rising global average temperatures help fuel more extreme weather events through a variety of ways, and most mainstream climate scientists have predicted that those weather events that could previously be considered once-in-a-lifetime will become more common and more extreme. Scientists also say that man-made climate change has had an effect on the northern hemisphere’s jet stream that can cause winter weather conditions to stall out over large swaths of the globe for extended periods of time, such as the wintery conditions that gripped much of the middle of the country in February.
Johnson Bridgewater, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Sierra Club, said the group has waged a long campaign, Beyond Coal, to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy such as wind and solar.
And though some gains have been made, such as utility companies moving away from coal-burning electrical generation and wind energy making huge gains in the state, Bridgewater said the carbon emission data by the EPA does not show the full picture.
Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide when burned in newer, more efficient power plants compared to coal, and emits less other air pollutants such as sulfur, mercury and particulates. However, the extraction and transportation process for natural gas is greenhouse gas intensive in the form of methane emissions.
“The fracking sector was given in our opinion, way too much credibility and leeway to just run rampant with this idea that if we replace coal with natural gas all will be well,” he said. “The problem is that is just not the case. The fracking industry as a whole including ongoing production and capture and delivery is still producing massive quantities of air pollution in the system.”
The EPA facility data fails to take those greenhouse gas emissions into account and decreases the gains made by switching power generation away from coal and to natural gas, Bridgewater said.
The EPA data shows that Oklahoma City-based electric utility provider OG&E, which has around 858,000 Oklahoma customers, was the top polluter for the 9-year period. In 2019, electrical generation stations wholly or partially owned by the company released around 12.4 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, according to EPA data.
But the company also had the largest drop in carbon emissions over that time, emitting 11.7 million tons of carbon less in 2019 than in 2011, the data shows.
Around 67 percent of electricity generated by the company comes from natural gas-fired generators, 26 percent comes from coal and 7 percent comes from renewable sources, according to OG&E.
Though OG&E still uses natural gas and coal as its “base” generation fuels, it has diversified its power generation sources in recent years, said company spokesman Brian Alford.
Alford said the company has reduced carbon emissions by around 40 percent since 2005, and hopes to have reduced its carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 50 percent by 2030.
The reason for the declines — shutting down some coal-fired generation units and putting carbon scrubbers on its four remaining coal generators in the state, he said.
In 2003, OG&E began developing its own wind farms and in 2015, it built the first utility-scale solar farm in Oklahoma. OG&E has two existing solar farms near Mustang and Covington, and has two other solar farms in the works near Davis and Durant to provide power to the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.
“We will continue to look for opportunities to add solar as customer demand continues. As a renewable, we’ve found that solar is a better mix for us here in Oklahoma because it helps support across the peak in summer,” Alford said. “It provides much more support to get us across the peak.”
Public Service Company of Oklahoma, one of the largest electricity utilities in Oklahoma with around 557,000 customers, had the second largest carbon footprint in Oklahoma from 2011 to 2019, putting around 64.7 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during that time and around 4.7 million tons in 2019, according to the EPA data.
However, the company, part of the Ohio-based American Electric Power Co., also had the third largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. PSO reduced its carbon emissions by 6 million tons between 2011 and 2019 compared to 2011, the data shows.
According to PSO, most of the electricity it provides is purchased from other electrical generation companies, 22 percent comes from wind power generated by the company, 21 percent from natural gas generation and 14 percent from coal-fired generators at plants owned by PSO.
The company has eight fossil-fuel powered generators, six of which are natural gas-fired generators and two — Unit 3 at Northeastern Station in Oologah and a unit in Vernon, Texas — are coal-fired.
One of the main reasons for the decline in greenhouse gas emissions at PSO facilities is the closing of the coal-fired Unit 4 at Northeastern Station in 2016 as part of a deal with the EPA to reduce carbon emissions, said Stan Mayfield, spokesman for PSO.
Under an agreement with the EPA, the company plans to shutter its final remaining coal-burning unit in Oklahoma by 2026, Mayfield said, and will be stepping down generation from it as its retirement nears.
PSO purchases around 1100 mw of wind energy under its existing contracts, and is currently working to build three wind farms of its own in north-central and northwestern Oklahoma.
“We anticipate a combination of natural gas, wind and solar. That’s the energy future for us,” Mayfield said.
The companies with the third and fourth largest carbon emissions in 2019 were both fertilizer manufacturing companies — CF Industries Holdings Inc. and Koch Industries Inc., according to the data.
CF Industries, which owns the Verdigris Plant in Claremore and the Terra International Plant in Woodward, had emissions of around 4.7 million tons of carbon in 2019 and a total of 42.7 million tons between 2011 and 2019.
Koch Industries, which owns the Koch Fertilizer Nitrogen Plant in Enid, the Georgia Pacific paper mill in Muskogee and the Georgia Pacific gypsum mill in Fletcher, emitted a total of around 3 million tons of carbon in 2019, with most of that coming from the fertilizer plant. For the 9-year period, the company had total emissions of around 24.9 million, according to the EPA data.
And while many of the top emission power plant carbon sources in the EPA data declined in carbon output between 2011 and 2019, the fertilizer facilities showed slight increases during the period, according to the data.
A manager at the Koch Industries Enid facility did not respond to written questions submitted by The Frontier.
A phone message to a CF Industries spokesman from The Frontier was not returned. However, the company’s most recent report to the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission shows that its Verdigris plant is the second largest producer of UAN fertilizer — a mixture of urea and ammonium nitrate — in the world and is capable of producing 1,955 tons of UAN annually. The plant also has a capacity to produce 1,210 gross tons of ammonia, the report states, and natural gas is the principal raw material and primary fuel source used in the ammonia production process.
There are few EPA greenhouse gas requirements that impact CF Industries’ facilities other than emissions reporting, the report states.
Springfield, Missouri, based Associated Electric Cooperative had one of the largest increases in carbon emissions between 2011 and 2019. The company owns the combined-cycle natural gas powered Choteau Power Plant in Pryor. During the 9-year period, the plant went from emitting around 783,000 tons of carbon to 2.6 million.
A phone message left for the cooperative’s chief information officer, Brent Bosi, was not returned.
The second highest increase during the period came from Green Country Energy in Jenks, a combined cycle natural gas power plant that began operations in 2002. According to the EPA data, carbon emissions at the facility rose from around 876,000 tons of carbon in 2011 to 1.9 million tons in 2019.
Green Country Energy, which is owned by the Schaumburg, Illinois based J-Power USA Development and part of the Tokyo, Japan based international power generating company J-Power, saw increased generation during the 9-year period, which accounts for its increase in carbon emissions, said Paul Peterson, vice president of asset management and operations.
Peterson said another contributor for the increase over that period was relatively sharp declines in the price of natural gas over that time period, making it more attractive to produce power than other options at J-Power’s disposal.
One of the largest drops in carbon emissions from individual utility companies came from the Grand River Dam Authority, the data shows. GRDA, which is a non-appropriated state agency that provides power and water sales to municipalities and individual customers, owns the Grand River Energy Center in Choteau, with one operational coal unit and one natural gas combined cycle unit. The agency also has three hydroelectric plants, a wind farm and contracts with four other wind farms.
Between 2011 and 2019, carbon emissions from the Grand River Energy Center fell by around 87 percent, the data shows. During that time, the oldest coal-fired unit at the facility was taken offline and equipment was added to the other coal unit to reduce emissions, said Dan Sullivan, president and CEO of GRDA.
Though the agency plans to keep running the coal fired unit through 2030, Sullivan said it also plans to continue to invest in renewable energy in the form of solar power and the addition of hydrogen fuel.
Bridgewater said he hopes to see the state move toward more renewable energy, and that it would be possible for states to be fully powered by renewable energy sources.
However, the political will to bring Oklahoma to that point is not there yet, Bridgewater said, pointing to recent bills in the Oklahoma Legislature such as House Bill 2034, which prohibits state contractors from boycotting the oil or natural gas industry. Last week, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced the state was signing on to a lawsuit against the federal government from considering “social costs” of greenhouse gas emissions in its agency rulemaking procedure.