Climate change can feel like an overwhelming problem, in part, because so many of the things we use and activities we do on a daily basis use fossil fuels.
But a large share of the climate pollution produced in the United States comes from just a handful of big polluting facilities – the vast majority of them electric power plants. With the Biden administration about to propose new standards to reduce emissions from power plants, just how much could we mitigate climate damage by simply requiring the dirtiest polluters to clean up their act? According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the answer is: a lot.
In 2021, the 50 highest-emitting U.S. facilities released 487.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs, carbon dioxide-equivalent). That’s more pollution than any entire state other than Texas, with those 50 facilities responsible for nearly 9% of the U.S.’s net GHG emissions in 2021.
Which power plants are worst for the climate?
Power plants dominate the list of the nation’s top greenhouse gas polluters:
- Ninety percent of the top 50 polluters are power plants that burn coal and/or gas. Together, those 45 power plants emitted 28% of all greenhouse gases from electricity generation nationwide, while generating only 11% of the nation’s power.
- The number 1 greenhouse gas polluter in the country – the James H. Miller Jr. power plant in Quinton, Ala. – released nearly 21 million metric tons of GHGs in 2021. That’s more climate pollution than the entire state of Maine produced in 2020.
The nine power plants among the nation’s top 10 polluters released nearly 129 million metric tons of GHGs in 2021. That’s more pollution from just nine facilities than 36 individual states – including New Jersey, Arizona and Washington – released in 2020.
Emissions from top climate polluters compared with gross emissions from entire states
Which industrial polluters contribute most to climate change?
Power plants aren’t the only industrial facilities producing large volumes of climate pollution. The ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas, for example, produced 11.8 million metric tons of GHGs (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2021, ninth-most in the nation, and equal to the amount of emissions produced by 2.6 million of today’s typical passenger cars.
Four other non-power plant facilities are among the nation’s top 50 emitters: two steel mills (the U.S. Steel facility in Gary, Ind., and the Cleveland-Cliffs facility in Burns Harbor, Ind.), the CF Industries Nitrogen LLC nitrogen fertilizer plant in Donaldsonville, La., and the Ascend Performance Materials LLC (a chemical/synthetic materials producer) facility in Cantonment, Fla. A full list of America’s 50 biggest climate polluters can be found below.
Top 50 climate polluters, 2021
Click here to see America's top 50 climate polluters
|Facility Name||City||State||County||Total 2021 GHG emissions (metric tons, CO2 equivalent)||Industry|
|James H. Miller Jr.||Quinton||AL||Jefferson||20,998,639||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Labadie||Labadie||MO||Franklin||15,760,177||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Monroe||Monroe||MI||Monroe||14,379,178||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|W. A. Parish||Thompsons||TX||Fort Bend||13,911,354||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Martin Lake||Tatum||TX||Rusk||13,515,092||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|General J. M. Gavin||Cheshire||OH||Gallia||13,478,316||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Oak Grove||Franklin||TX||Robertson||12,617,336||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Prairie State Generating Station||Marissa||IL||Washington||12,496,789||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|ExxonMobil Baytown Site||Baytown||TX||Harris||11,811,121||Petroleum refineries|
|John E. Amos||Winfield||WV||Putnam||11,528,677||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Sam Seymour||La Grange||TX||Fayette||10,987,388||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Harrison Power Station||Haywood||WV||Harrison||10,953,742||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Jim Bridger||Point of Rocks||WY||Sweetwater||10,830,859||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Cumberland||Cumberland City||TN||Stewart||10,720,120||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|U.S. Steel Corp. – Gary Works||Gary||IN||Lake||10,438,954||Iron and steel mills and ferroalloy manufacturing|
|Ghent||Ghent||KY||Carroll||10,385,614||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Colstrip||Colstrip||MT||Rosebud||10,035,340||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Laramie River||Wheatland||WY||Platte||9,868,313||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Cardinal||Brilliant||OH||Jefferson||9,791,031||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Sherburne County||Becker||MN||Sherburne||9,776,192||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Bowen||Cartersville||GA||Bartow||9,496,076||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Coal Creek||Underwood||ND||McLean||9,451,219||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Scherer||Juliette||GA||Monroe||9,420,858||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Hunter||Castle Dale||UT||Emery||9,238,311||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Crystal River Power Plant||Crystal River||FL||Citrus||9,204,483||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|CF Industries Nitrogen, LLC Donaldsonville Nitrogen Complex||Donaldsonville||LA||Ascension Parish||9,052,754||Nitrogenous fertilizer manufacturing|
|Gibson||Owensville||IN||Gibson||8,984,925||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Jeffrey Energy Center||St. Marys||KS||Pottawatomie||8,759,787||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Ascend Performance Materials LLC||Cantonment||FL||Escambia||8,564,795||Plastics material and resin manufacturing|
|Springerville Generating Station||Springerville||AZ||Apache||8,499,180||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Petersburg||Petersburg||IN||Pike||8,392,006||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|J. H. Campbell||West Olive||MI||Ottawa||8,350,612||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Thomas Hill Energy Center||Clifton Hill||MO||Randolph||8,257,226||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|J. K. Spruce||San Antonio||TX||Bexar||7,997,807||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Comanche||Pueblo||CO||Pueblo||7,963,532||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|H. L. Spurlock||Maysville||KY||Mason||7,960,447||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Four Corners Steam Electricity Station||Fruitland||NM||San Juan||7,847,371||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Craig||Craig||CO||Moffat||7,831,174||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Cross||Pineville||SC||Berkeley||7,747,272||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Trimble County||Bedford||KY||Trimble||7,732,993||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Cleveland-Cliffs Burns Harbor LLC||Burns Harbor||IN||Porter||7,517,130||Iron and steel mills and ferroalloy manufacturing|
|Pleasants Power Station||Willow Island||WV||Pleasants||7,448,325||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|White Bluff||Redfield||AR||Jefferson||7,397,350||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Rush Island||Festus||MO||Jefferson||7,379,800||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Belle River||Saint Clair Haven||MI||Saint Clair||7,334,068||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Keystone||Shelocta||PA||Armstrong||7,267,256||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Mill Creek||Louisville||KY||Jefferson||7,194,246||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|West County Energy Center||Loxahatchee||FL||Palm Beach||7,138,621||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Elm Road Generating Station||Oak Creek||WI||Milwaukee||7,072,418||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
|Iatan Generating Station||Weston||MO||Platte||7,035,172||Fossil fuel electric power generation|
Upcoming rules aim to cut power plant emissions
While power plants are the nation’s biggest individual contributors to global warming, things are getting better. Coal-fired electricity, which emits copious amounts of carbon pollution, is on the decline, and was recently surpassed in terms of its share of U.S. electricity production by renewable energy. With the cost of renewable energy falling and the amount of clean wind and solar power on the grid surging, there is simply no excuse for allowing America’s biggest polluters to continue to harm our climate and our health.
Seeing this opportunity, President Joe Biden is poised to propose greenhouse gas emission standards for existing power plants that could require many of these facilities – which have been polluting our air for decades – to finally clean up their act. The proposed standards would, at long last, force power plant operators to take responsibility for addressing the outsized role they play in disrupting the climate.
Cleaning up dirty power plants on its own isn’t enough to solve climate change. But with a small number of big polluters creating a big share of the problem, strong standards would move us much closer to securing cleaner air and a better future.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.
Executive Director, Washington Legislative Office, Environment America; Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network
Lisa directs strategy and staff for Environment America's federal campaigns. She also oversees The Public Interest Network's Washington, D.C., office and operations. She has won millions of dollars in investments in walking, biking and transit, and has helped develop strategic campaigns to protect America's oceans, forests and public lands from drilling, logging and road-building. Lisa is an Oregonian transplant in Washington, D.C., where she loves hiking, running, biking, and cooking for friends and family.
Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group