Efforts by the nation’s largest emitter of nitrous oxide to rein in the release of the potent greenhouse gas are behind schedule, allowing the emissions, which are relatively easy to eliminate, to continue to fuel climate change.
Ascend Performance Materials is a chemical company that produces adipic acids, which is key in the manufacture of nylon 6,6 (and polyurethane), synthetic materials used in everything, from carpeting to car parts to running shoes. A by-product of the manufacturing process is large amounts of nitrous oxide. This is a climate superpollutant.
According to figures reported by the company to the EPA, Ascend released 27,528 tons nitrous oxide into atmosphere from its adipic Acid plant near Pensacola in Florida in 2020. These emissions were equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 1.6 million cars. This is more than five-times the nitrous oxide emissions from any other U.S. facility.
Nitrous oxide is almost 300 times more harmful as a greenhouse gas per ton than carbon dioxide, which is the primary driver of climate changes. Following an international ban of more harmful ozone depleting chemicals, nitrous dioxide is the most significant ozone destroying substance currently released to the atmosphere. The gas is used by dentists as an anesthetic and is therefore not subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.
Emissions of nitrous oxide from Ascend’s Pensacola plant, a sprawling chemical facility next to the Escambia River, place it among the nation’s top 25 greenhouse gas emitters alongside coal-fired power plants and oil refineries, the EPA data shows. Yet, unlike those other facilities’ carbon dioxide emissions, nitrous oxide pollution is easily abated through incineration or chemical decomposition. Since the 1990s, other adipic acid plants across North America, Europe, and Asia have used low-cost incinerators as well as chemical reactors to eliminate 95 percent or more of their Nitrous Oxide since then.
Ascend destroyed or otherwise abated just 70 percent of its nitrous oxide emissions in 2020 and the sheer scale of the plant’s operations—it is the largest adipic acid production facility in the world—mean these remaining emissions have an outsized impact.
Company officials told Inside Climate News in early 2020 that they would voluntarily reduce their remaining nitrous oxide emissions by 50 percent by mid-2020 and should achieve a “well over 95 percent” emissions reduction by February of 2022. But instead of decreasing, nitrous oxide emissions from Ascend’s Pensacola plant increased by 50 percent in 2020, EPA data show. Florida’s state regulators did not grant air permits to indicate that the company was pursuing ambitious reductions of the potent greenhouse gases.
“When you look under the hood, we have a lot of questions about whether those steps are really being taken,” said Jessye Waxman, campaign strategist for Climate Strategies Lab, a newly launched environmental advocacy organization focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heavy industry, of Ascend’s emission reduction efforts. “We know that the technology is there and it’s definitely possible to abate at 95-plus percent. Ascend isn’t there. So, as we’re looking at the chemicals industry, as we’re looking at major manufacturers in the United States, Ascend certainly stands out as a sore thumb.”
Officials at the company said that they are continuing to reduce emissions.
“We have completed the first phase of our investments to reduce N2O by 50 percent [of remaining emissions]We are currently working on the second stage of the project to achieve reductions of more than 90 percent. [of total emissions],” Chris Johnson, Ascend’s director of sustainability, said in a written statement. “We expect this phase to be completed by the end of this year.”
Since 2015, Ascend has been developing its own nitrous oxide recycling technology. Ascend’s destruction of N2O is voluntary, however the rate at which it has abated nitrous oxide has decreased significantly in recent years, from a high of 91 percent of total emissions in 2015 to just 70 percent in 2020 according to EPA data.
Johnson didn’t specify when the 50% reduction in emissions was achieved. However, Ascend published a sustainability report last year that stated that the first phase of a new project to reduce nitrous oxide emissions was expected to be completed in late 2020. Johnson did not give reasons for the delay in emission reduction efforts. However, the global pandemic and related supply chains issues may have played a part.
The Climate Action Reserve, which facilitates carbon trading, offered carbon offsets for nitrous oxide emission reductions. According to the Reserve, Ascend sold emission reduction credits amounting to almost 1.3 Million metric tons of carbon dioxide during the first half of 2021.
If the company continued selling offsets at the same rate in the second half of 2021, the carbon offsets would equal a 35 percent reduction in nitrous oxide emissions based on the company’s 2020 emissions, a significant improvement but still shy of the company’s 50 percent reduction target.
Invista, a chemical manufacturer in Victoria, Texas, is the only other adipic Acid plant in the country. Invista reduces approximately 97 percent its nitrous oxide emissions. However, unlike Ascend it is not eligible for carbon offsets to offset its existing emissions. Invista’s predecessor, DuPont, added the pollution controls at the plant voluntarily in 1997. Invista must now reduce approximately 95 percent of the nitrous dioxide it produces, according to state regulators.
How quickly and to what extent Ascend reduces its nitrous oxide emissions could affect its financial outlook because SK Capital, Ascend’s owner, has been reported to be considering selling the company. Bloomberg reported that SK Capital, a private equity company, was considering an initial public offer of the company in December. However, Barry Siadat, a co-founder of SK Capital and chairman of Ascend Performance Materials, said the article, which cited unnamed sources, was a “baseless rumor.”
If SK Capital does proceed with an IPO, Ascend’s outsized emissions may give investors pause.
“If I was looking at this company and the track record on not only setting targets, but managing its overall GHG emissions, they do seem like they’re late to the game,” Lauren Compere, managing director of Boston Common Asset Management, an investment firm that focuses on environmental issues, said, referring to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Their record is poor relative to their peers in leveraging the use of existing, low-cost abatement technology,” she said. “It calls into question, I think, the company’s overall management of sustainability and understanding what expectations are out there, from both investors and customers.”
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According to a peer-reviewed report published in 2000, the cost of nitrous dioxide abatement technology cost around $10 million per unit in the 1990s. After inflation, the cost would be about twice today. Ascend’s innovative chemical recycling approach would increase costs, but it would likely be relatively low for the company, whose value Bloomberg estimated at $5 billion.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small operating cost,” Waxman said.
Meanwhile, Invista is working with the China Pingmei Shenma Group, one of the largest manufacturers of adipic acid in China, to voluntarily destroy Shenma’s nitrous oxide emissions.
Invista will grant Shenma a license to its nitrous oxide abatement tech as part of a larger deal. Shenma also will supply Invista with adipic Acid for nylon 6,6 production. According to Invista’s Jan. 18 press statement, the agreement could reduce nitrous dioxide emissions by as high as 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum. This is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from 3,000,000 automobiles per annum.
But, there are still questions about this agreement. Invista previously installed pollution controls at Shenma’s adipic acid production facilities in the early 2000s through a United Nations program that provided incentives for Shenma and other Chinese producers to abate their nitrous oxide emissions. It’s unclear if the agreement with Invista includes new or expanded pollution controls or simply provides the chemical catalysts required to run existing equipment.
Shenma previously stated to Inside Climate News that the company continued to reduce its emissions after U.N. funding ended in 2012. Officials from Shenma declined to disclose the percentage of their emissions that are either destroyed or captured for reuse. Shenma didn’t respond to a request to provide additional information. Invista declined to comment.
Waxman said she is “guardedly optimistic” that the agreement is a sign that Chinese manufacturers are beginning to shift to stronger pollution controls. China produces nearly half of the world’s adipic acid and many of the country’s 11 production plants may not be abating the vast majority of their nitrous oxide.
Shenma and Invista, which are subsidiaries of Koch Industries, may be more concerned with financial sustainability than environmental concerns. Because brands that use nylon 6,6 and/or polyester are starting to look further up in their supply chains when assessing their climate impact, she explained.
“Moving away from suppliers that have outsized greenhouse gas footprints in comparison to peers is a really easy move,” Waxman said.
She added, “They really need to step up their game on sustainability, and the easiest way that they can do this right now, and have a big impact on slashing their emissions, is using that nitrous oxide abatement technology.”
Source: Inside Climate News