Ten miles north of Pensacola, Florida, on the west bank of the Escambia River, an aging chemical plant, its tanks, smokestacks and stainless steel pipes sprawling across hundreds of acres, is a climate killer hiding in plain sight.
The plant, owned by Houston-based Ascend Performance Materials, makes adipic acid, one of two main ingredients for nylon 6,6, a strong, durable plastic used in everything from stockings to carpeting, seat belts and air bags. The plant also emits vast quantities of an unwanted byproduct, nitrous oxide, more colloquially known as “laughing gas.”
From a climate perspective, the plant’s emissions are no joke. Nitrous oxide, or N2O, is nearly 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. N2O emissions totaling 33,046 metric tons from the plant in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, equal the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 2.1 million automobiles, according to company data reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and the agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.
That is more than all the registered vehicles in Miami and nearly one-third of all cars in Florida. But unlike the carbon dioxide that spews from automobiles or smokestacks, nitrous oxide emissions from chemical plants can be abated using existing technology at relatively modest cost.
The plant, a subsidiary of SK Capital Partners, a private equity firm that says it generates $9 billion in annual revenue, is the largest point source of nitrous oxide emissions in the country. Its number one ranking as a nitrous oxide polluter illustrates how companies often choose to leave untouched greenhouse gas emissions they aren’t required by law to abate, even when proven systems exist to eliminate those emissions. In the case of nitrous oxide emissions, DuPont and its global competitors, alarmed by N2O’s potency as a greenhouse gas, joined forces almost 30 years ago and developed technologies to abate virtually all of their pollution.
The plant’s exceedingly high emissions persist at a time when climate scientists are increasingly calling for reductions of so-called super-pollutants, highly potent greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide that, on a per ton basis, cause far more warming of the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Nitrous oxide stays in the atmosphere for 114 years, longer than a human lifetime, yet shorter than the centuries that carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere.
Even if all carbon dioxide emissions ceased today, the CO2 already in the atmosphere would continue warming the planet for centuries. Reducing nitrous oxide and other shorter-lived climate pollutants—some of which, like black carbon and tropospheric ozone, only remain in the atmosphere for a matter of days—would help combat climate change faster.
Ascend officials say they are aware of the problem. Vikram Gopal, Ascend’s senior vice president for technology, told InsideClimate News that Ascend will implement a process this year for reducing its nitrous oxide emissions by 50 percent. Additional new technology for further reductions would be in place within two years, he said.
Taking on Nitrous Oxide
A crystal globe rests atop a bookshelf in Ronald Reimer’s home office and guest bedroom in a Georgetown, Texas, retirement community. Reimer, 74, a former engineer for DuPont, received the award from the company in 1992 for leading a team of DuPont researchers in an international effort to reduce nitrous oxide emissions across the industry.
Reimer first heard about the problem nitrous oxide posed to the planet in early 1991, when DuPont executives shared with him a study from the journal Science, warning about the potential impacts of nitrous oxide emissions from adipic acid plants on the “greenhouse effect” and ozone depletion.Source: Inside Climatenews