Study Claims U.S. Power Plants Far More Polluting than National Neighbors

The United States' reliance on coal makes its power industry significantly dirtier than its counterparts in Mexico or Canada, a new study charges.

Jan. 12—The United States' reliance on coal makes its power industry significantly dirtier than its counterparts in Mexico or Canada, a new study charges.

The study, released Tuesday by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America, showed U.S. power plants produced more of four pollutants — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and mercury — than Mexico's and Canada's in 2002.

While that might not be surprising, given that U.S. power production is 17 times that of Mexico's and nearly seven times that of Canada's, the study also found U.S. plants produced more of each pollutant per resident, and, in all but one case, when measured by gross domestic product — an indicator of a country's economy.

The study, which can be viewed at, is the first to compare data from fossil-fuel power plants in the three countries that make up the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Paul Miller, the commission's program coordinator for air quality, said the nation's high levels of pollution stems from a dependence on coal for 50 percent of U.S. power. Canada depends on coal for 17 percent of its power, and Mexico for 8 percent.

"Coal is the highest polluting fuel for all of these pollutants," Miller said.

The study looked at data from more than 1,000 power plants — 899 in the United States, 82 in Mexico and 70 in Canada. It is the first step in creating an emissions inventory for North America and can be used as a baseline as the power industry continues to deregulate between the three countries, Miller said.

In San Antonio, City Public Service operates three coal plants at its Calaveras Lake complex and has proposed building a fourth. The company also is in the midst of a $350-million pollution reduction project at its plants.

Here's how the local plants ranked among U.S. facilities in Tuesday's report:

J.T. Deely (two plants): 149th for sulfur dioxide, 228th for nitrogen oxides, 63rd for mercury, 118th for carbon dioxide.

J.K. Spruce: 332nd for sulfur dioxide, 285th for nitrogen oxides, 127th for mercury, 176th for carbon dioxide.

Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Watch advocacy group said the report is proof that the United States has to require more pollution controls on its coal plants, particularly the older ones.

"The reality is we can deal with most of these problems from coal burning, with the possible exception of carbon dioxide, through pollution controls," he said.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, argued that comparing the three countries' power industries is "problematic."

That's because Canada is a much smaller country that relies on hydroelectric facilities for 60 percent of its power, and although hydroelectric power doesn't cause air pollution, environmental groups in the United States often oppose it, Segal said.

And despite the report's findings, Mexico has some of the worst air quality in the world, Segal said, while this country's air quality has been improving steadily since 1970.

"The power sector in the United States has been in the vanguard of major environmental investments and emissions reductions," he said.

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