Aluminum plants release tons of greenhouse gas

Aluminum plants in the United States are releasing tons of highly potent greenhouse gas, unlike their counterparts abroad, NBC news reports.

A Century Aluminum plant in Kentucky and a recently closed Alcoa plant in Washington emit far more greenhouse gasses per ton of aluminum than Icelandic plants run by the same companies, according to an Inside Climate News analysis.

The Century Aluminum Sebree in Kentucky is one of the largest sources in the country of a potent greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for 50,000 years. 

Tetrafluoromethane and hexafluovroethane are both perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, that are among the most potent and longest-lasting greenhouse gasses on the planet. 

In 2021, the plant in Kentucky vented 23 tons of tetrafluoromethane as well as a ton of hexafluoroethane. 

The pollution equals the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 40,000 automobiles, ones that will effectively remain on the metaphorical road for tens of thousands of years.

A new plant run by the same company in Iceland emits just a mere sixth of these emissions per ton of aluminum. 

Alcoa’s Intalco smelter in Ferndale, Washington, emitted nearly 50 tons of PFCs in 2020 before the company temporarily shut down production that same year, according to the EPA. 

That comes in stark contrast to Alcoa’s Fjarðaál smelter in Iceland, which has a PFC emissions intensity less than one-fortieth that of the recently shuttered Intalco smelter.

The older U.S. plants have some of the highest PFC emissions rates in the world and their overseas counterparts with far lower emissions. Even though they are operated by the same multinational companies. 

The contrast highlights why the U.S. aluminum industry needs revitalization, environmental advocates say, even as it has declined precipitously in recent decades.  

Unlike carbon dioxide, the primary driver of climate change, the EPA does not regulate PFCs. PFCs are greenhouse gasses that, pound for pound, are thousands of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. 

The U.S. aluminum industry once led the world in efforts to reduce perfluorocarbons. Now, U.S. smelters have some of the highest rates of PFC emissions in the world.

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