Coal plants dominate list of Chicago's biggest polluters
Fed by a steady stream of coal barges, the aging power plants that loom over Chicago's Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods are by far the city's largest industrial sources of climate change pollution.

No other polluter comes close to the 4.2 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide churned into the atmosphere by the two coal plants in 2010, according to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database that for the first time allows people to compare major industrial sources of greenhouse gases.

The city's next biggest source, a heating plant at the University of Illinois at Chicago, trailed far behind. It emitted 132,000 metric tons.

About 6,700 power plants, refineries, steel mills and other major polluters are required under a 2008 federal law to provide detailed annual reports on their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other heat-trapping gases that contribute to climate change. The first results highlight the nation's reliance on coal as an energy source and show why fossil fuel interests are lobbying fiercely to block federal and state efforts to limit the pollution.

Though burning oil and natural gas also releases greenhouse gases, coal plants account for all but four of the top 100 emitters nationwide and more than 70 percent of emissions from big industrial sources, according to a Tribune analysis of the EPA data.

Two of the other four are steel mills in northwest Indiana — the U.S. Steel Gary Works and an Arcelor Mittal plant in East Chicago — that top the rankings in the broader Chicago metropolitan area. Others in the local top 10 include the BP refinery in Whiting and the Exxon Mobil refinery in Joliet.

Laws in Illinois and other states are requiring greater reliance on wind power and other renewable, pollution-free sources of energy. Yet the EPA data show how difficult it is to wean the U.S. from fossil fuels without a national policy, industry observers said.

"It's like a big ship that can't turn on a dime, but we can create jobs if we do it right," said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce Energy Council, which includes companies that rely on coal and others that generate nuclear, wind and solar power without emitting greenhouse gases. "Either we need to gradually shift away from coal, or coal needs to figure out how to significantly reduce its emissions."

The list of big polluters comes amid an increasingly rancorous debate about research showing that greenhouse gases, largely from burning fossil fuels, are driving up global temperatures. If the pollution remains unchecked, most climate scientists think a steadily warming planet could trigger widespread weather shifts, coastal flooding, prolonged droughts and deadly heat waves. There is greater uncertainty about how fast climate change is happening and how the human disruption of natural warming cycles affects things like sea levels and food supplies.

Sharp policy differences also remain about how critical it is to respond and what the U.S. and other nations should do to limit greenhouse gases.

Gina McCarthy, the EPA's top air official, told reporters during a recent conference call that she hopes the new data influence public opinion the same way a separate inventory of toxic chemicals pressured industry to reduce those emissions. By contrast, all of the Republican candidates for president oppose regulating greenhouse gases, and GOP lawmakers in Congress have repeatedly tried to strip the EPA of its power to set new pollution standards.

Three coal-dependent energy companies are responsible for more than 60 percent of the greenhouse gases from big sources in Illinois, which despite generating more nuclear power than any other state ranks seventh nationally in total emissions. Indiana is second, after Texas.

Illinois' largest single corporate polluter is Midwest Generation, the company that owns the Crawford and Fisk coal plants in Chicago and four more in the suburbs of Joliet, Romeoville and Waukegan and in Pekin in central Illinois. Burning coal from Wyoming and other Western states, the plants emitted more than 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010, an amount equivalent to the tailpipe emissions of about 6 million cars.

Midwest Generation is under intense pressure to clean up its Chicago plants, largely because they also are among the region's biggest industrial sources of lung- and heart-damaging soot and pollutants that create smog and acid rain. Installing equipment required at newer coal plants would sharply reduce those emissions, but the only viable options for curbing greenhouse gases are switching to cleaner-burning natural gas or shutting down.

Many other companies already have decided it isn't worth the expense to clean up inefficient coal plants that date to the 1940s and '50s. Examples of recently announced plant closings include the State Line Generating Station in Hammond and others outside Danville and Meredosia in central Illinois and Hutsonville in southern Illinois. A sharp decline in natural gas prices is driving other companies to convert coal burners such as the Valley Power Plant in Milwaukee and the Capital Heat and Power Plant in Madison, Wis.

Nationwide, utilities have opted to scrap more than 200 coal-burning units during the last three years. The planned retirements will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 152 million metric tons a year, according to records compiled by the Sierra Club.

"If we want to get serious about this problem, these old, dirty coal plants are the place to start," said Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club attorney.

Under a deal with Illinois regulators, Midwest Generation has pledged to install pollution controls on its plants or shut them down by 2018. An ordinance backed by a majority of Chicago aldermen would require a quicker decision about Crawford and Fisk, forcing the company to switch from coal or shut the plants by next year.

"We have always been open to discussing long-term transition plans for our energy supply, but such a transition requires sustainability of new energy sources," said Charles Parnell, a Midwest Generation spokesman, in an email response to questions. The company is negotiating with state officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration to shut down the Chicago plants sooner in return for a long-term contract to buy electricity from a wind farm in northwest Illinois.