By James M. O'Neill

New Jersey's carbon emissions shot up by 14 percent in 2014 -- reversing three straight years of declines even as the Obama administration moves to cut carbon emissions to address climate change.

A combination of factors -- a resurgent economy, a particularly cold winter and power plants shutting down in other states -- pushed up demand for energy from New Jersey's plants. They responded, in the process emitting 17 million metric tons of carbon.

The state has made strides to clean up its power plants, and a one-year increase in itself would not have much of an impact on climate change regionally, said Monica Mazurek, a Rutgers University expert on urban air pollution.

But if the increases continue over the next several years, it could make it harder for New Jersey to meet new carbon reduction goals set by the administration. Carbon, generated when fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas are burned, is a greenhouse gas linked to climate change. And as a coastal state, New Jersey is at greater risk to be hurt by the effects of climate change, such as a rise in sea levels.

Sea levels have risen a foot and a half along parts of the New Jersey coast over the past century, and they are expected to rise an additional foot and a half over the next 35 years, according to Ken Miller, an earth and planetary sciences expert at Rutgers. And with seas higher, each storm is able to push that much more water toward land in the form of a surge.

Sea level rise also means more flooding from high tides -- which can even occur on sunny days -- causing frequent road closures, overwhelming storm water systems and jeopardizing other infrastructure, such as gas lines, public transportation and ground-level electric equipment. Besides towns on the Jersey Shore, the floods are happening in the Meadowlands and along the lower Passaic and Hackensack rivers.

Carbon emissions from the state's 45 power plants dwarfed such emissions from other sources in 2014, including refineries and chemical companies. But many industries emit carbon -- from the state's food and beverage industry to its pharmaceutical manufacturers and the Marcal paper factory in Elmwood Park. Even colleges with energy plants on their campuses emit carbon.

Overall, the state's carbon emissions totaled 27 million metric tons, up from 23.75 million the prior year. Emissions from the power plants rose by 17 percent.

The state's largest carbon polluter was PSEG Power's Bergen Generating Station in Ridgefield, which burns natural gas and can supply up to 1,200 megawatts of electricity. It alone accounted for nearly 10 percent of the state total, emitting 2.6 million metric tons, up 5 percent.

A spokeswoman, Nancy Tucker, said its location and low cost led the independent operator of the region's electrical grid to ask for increased production.

"More run time means more total emissions, but Bergen's emission rate is much lower than other fossil fuel technologies, making it a good choice for the environment," said Tucker.

PSEG Power's Jersey City plant had a 9 percent increase in carbon emissions, and emissions more than doubled at its Mercer Generating Station.

Ray Dotter, a spokesman for PJM Interconnection, which operates the grid, pointed to an improving economy and harsh weather as reasons for an increase in energy demand. In January 2014, for example, sustained arctic temperatures forced people in the region to run their heating systems more. Of the 10 highest winter peaks PJM had ever experienced, eight of them occurred that January.

In addition, some power companies shuttered some of their oldest, least efficient coal-burning plants in Midwestern states, deciding it would be too expensive to retrofit them with the new emission control equipment required under new federal air pollution rules.

Finally, when demand increases, the infrastructure can sometimes get congested -- there's only so much electricity that transmission lines can send into a region from the power plants with the cheapest power. When that happens, local plants can be asked to increase production, Dotter said.

The Elmwood Park Power Plant, owned by Talen Energy of Allentown, Pa., saw carbon emissions jump 61 percent in 2014, though its overall numbers were relatively small at 77,789 metric tons. The facility produced far more electricity than in prior years, said spokesman Todd Martin.

Other large carbon polluters in New Jersey included the Phillips 66 Bayway Refinery in Linden, with 2.5 million metric tons, and the Linden Cogeneration and Linden Generating facilities, each with 2.3 million metric tons.

But even these numbers pale by comparison to some of the large coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. One plant in Pennsylvania, called Bruce Mansfield, emitted 15.6 million metric tons of carbon.

Overall, New Jersey emits far less carbon from the sources tracked by the federal Environmental Protection Agency than some other states that rely heavily on coal-fired power plants. Neighboring Pennsylvania's plants combined had 99 million metric tons of carbon emissions, down from 114 million in 2011. Indiana's emitted 104 million metric tons of carbon, Ohio's 98 million metric tons and Kentucky's 85 million. Texas dwarfed all other states with 239 million metric tons of carbon.

In August, President Obama issued a sweeping plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants by a third nationwide from 2005 levels over the next 15 years. New Jersey's plants would have to cut emissions by a combined 26 percent.

The Christie administration recently attacked the plan, saying it punishes states that have already made significant reductions -- in New Jersey's case, by a third between 2001 and 2012. Half of New Jersey's power is generated by nuclear plants, which emit no carbon.

While power plants dominate carbon emissions in New Jersey, many other entities also are in play. Rutgers, for example, reported 95,340 metric tons of emissions, Princeton University reported 85,575 metric tons and Montclair State University reported 36,853.

The Rutgers emissions are primarily produced from the Busch Cogeneration Plant that provides electricity and heat for most of two dozen residence halls and 70 academic buildings, said spokesman E.J. Miranda. Rutgers has constructed two solar energy facilities on the Livingston campus to reduce its carbon footprint, Miranda said.

Montclair State has a cogeneration plant that produces steam and electricity, with the steam cycled to campus buildings for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer.

Marcal reported 62,042 metric tons, and the Passaic Valley Sewer Commission's Newark treatment plant reported 24,702 metric tons. The capped, retired 1-E Landfill owned by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority had 42,616 metric tons, mostly methane, which is produced as garbage decays.

The EPA's annual data on carbon emissions reflects only about half of all such emissions, since small industrial sites and vehicle emissions are not included.

"Although New Jersey energy producers have made important changes by switching from coal to natural gas and municipal solid waste fuels, the state still has significant greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector," said Mazurek, the air pollution expert. "As a major transportation corridor with multimodal transportation hubs, New Jersey can become a leader in reducing carbon emissions by investing in alternative fueled transportation infrastructure and by accelerating the current pace of its development."

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