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Northland sites among top Minnesota emitters of greenhouse gases

DULUTH -- Coal-fired powerplants and taconite processing are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Northeastern Minnesota, according to a new list of the nation's largest sources of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases.

Two Northland power plants and two taconite plants are among the state's 10 largest emitters -- Minnesota Power's Clay Boswell plant in Cohasset and Taconite Harbor plant on the North Shore along with U.S. Steel's Minntac plant in Mountain Iron and Cliffs Natural Resources' Northshore Mining in Silver Bay.

It's greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels that most scientists who study the issue say are contributing to climate change, with high levels of human-caused gas trapping heat near the surface of the Earth and spurring a warming climate.

Powerplants released 72 percent of all greenhouse gases reported to the EPA for 2010. But across Minnesota, oil refineries, taconite plants, paper mills, ethanol plants and even sugar beet processing also emitted greenhouse gases. Even some landfills, which emit methane as garbage decomposes, made the list.

It's been known for years that these industries were the largest sources of greenhouse gases, but the Environmental Protection Agency's new list is the most detailed data yet available to the public and the first that listed all major emitters by site.

Some 6,157 sites across the U.S. are listed on the EPA's website -- -- in an easy-to-use format that allows people to choose their state and then county to see the top emitters. There are 136 large greenhouse gas producers in Wisconsin and 132 in Minnesota.

The report doesn't cover greenhouse gases from agriculture, forestry or cars, trucks and other modes of transportation.

Gina McCarthy, the top air pollution official at the EPA, said the database marked a major milestone in the agency's work to address climate change. She said it would help industry, states and the federal governments identify ways to reduce greenhouse gases by identifying where regulations and pollution control could do the most good. The Obama administration plans to regulate emissions of heat-trapping gases under the Clean Air Act rather than waiting for Congress to pass new laws. A proposed regulation targeting coal-fired powerplants could be released yet in January.

The largest greenhouse gas polluter in the nation in 2010 was the coal burning Scherer power plant in Juliette, Ga., owned by Southern Company, emitting nearly 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. In Minnesota, Xcel Energy's coal burning Sherco plant in central Minnesota was the largest at 13.5 million tons and Minnesota Power's Clay Boswell was second at nearly 6.7 million.

Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power spokeswoman, said the Duluth-based utility already is on the road to reducing carbon emissions under Minnesota's own mandate to produce 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. That effort has given the utility a leg up on reducing carbon to comply with any new federal rules to come. The utility also has been ordered by state regulators to look at closing two of its older coal-fired plants.

Minnesota Power, which has historically relied on coal, already is adding 300 megawatts of wind energy from North Dakota and has an agreement to buy significant amounts of hydropower from Manitoba in future years.

"Through these efforts and others, MP expects to reduce its coal fired generation from 95 percent in 2005 to 75 percent by 2013 and to 50 to 60 percent by the middle of the next decade," Rutledge told the News Tribune.

Congress required industries to report their greenhouse gas emissions as part of a 2008 spending bill. Until now, the agency has estimated greenhouse gas emissions by industry sector rather than a specific plant.

"The information is sure to make companies, localities and specific plants more conscious of their emissions profile and may lead some to lower emissions themselves," said Paul Bledsoe, senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank that works on energy and environmental issues.

Environmental groups welcomed the release of the information.

"The EPA has scored a touchdown for the public's right to know about the nation's largest industrial climate pollution sources," said Paul Zalzal, staff attorney at Environmental Defense Fund.

Myers is a writer for the Duluth News Tribune. The Bemidji Pioneer and the News Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.