Midcontinent Industrial Emissions Present Challenge & Opportunity

Industry is the third highest-emitting sector in the US economy and has less obvious carbon reduction pathways in comparison to electricity and transportation, where the vast majority of decarbonization discussions have focused. This post introduces the current landscape of emissions in the US industrial heartland, the Midcontinent region, to inform discussions of carbon reduction pathways. While industry poses a challenge for decarbonization given its diversity of subsectors, unique emissions sources, and complex solution sets, it also holds a high potential for low-cost strategies, opportunities for collaboration between subsectors, and could drive investment in innovative decarbonization technologies.

Note: The Midcontinent region includes Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Here are three key takeaways:

  • The Midcontinent region is projected to experience an increase in industrial emissions by 2050 without additional decarbonization policies and strategies.
  • The top ten emitting sectors in the Midcontinent account for 70 percent of all industrial emissions in the region. Although this narrows the number of sectors to target for decarbonization, the sources and types of emissions vary within each high-emitting sector.
  • The interactive map provided in this post sheds light on localized industrial clusters within the Midcontinent region where beneficial collaboration on decarbonization could occur.

US industrial sector emissions

Industry contributes 21 percent of total emissions in the US economy, making it the third highest-emitting sector. If carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the electricity required for the industrial sector (indirect emissions) are also included, the industrial sector is the largest emitting sector in the US economy.

There are two main types of emissions in the industrial sector: direct and indirect emissions. These categories can be helpful in classifying emissions sources to understand each industrial subsector.

The category holding the most emissions in industry is direct emissions. These emissions occur on site at the facility and account for 70 percent of total US industrial emissions. Direct emissions can originate from on-site combustion of fuels for electricity and heat to produce a product or can originate as a result of the chemical transformation of a product, called process emissions. Although process emissions only account for around 25 percent of direct emissions for the industry sector as a whole, some sectors, such as steel manufacturing and cement manufacturing, have process emissions as the majority of their direct emissions. This is an example of the diversity in emissions distributions throughout each industrial sector that makes industrial decarbonization a challenge.

The remaining 30 percent of industrial emissions are from the energy provided by the power sector to produce the goods. Since the emissions occur off site, they are termed indirect emissions. Five of the largest energy-consuming industries (bulk chemicals, oil and gas, steel, paper, and food products) account for over half of the industrial indirect energy use in the US.

Types of industrial sector emissions
Source: Elizabeth Abramson, Great Plains Institute, April 2020.

The US Energy Information Administration expects the demand for energy from the industrial sector to grow around 34 percent by midcentury and emissions to increase by nearly 18 percent.

Midcontinent industrial sector emissions

Historical industrial emissions in the Midcontinent region show the same pattern of emissions growth over time as the national trend, which suggests this region will also experience an increase similar to the projected 18 percent increase in national industrial emissions.

Growth in industrial emissions for the US and the Midcontinent region, indexed on 1986
Source: Elizabeth Abramson, Great Plains Institute, April 2020, based on US Energy Information Administration (EIA), State Energy Data System, Industrial Emissions by State (1980-2016).

The eleven highest emitting industrial sectors in the Midcontinent account for over 70 percent of the total industrial emissions in the region. These top emitting sectors include petroleum refining, iron and steel, waste management, fertilizer, cement, vegetable fats and oils, biofuels, pulp & paper, organic chemicals, industrial gases, and oil and gas extraction (the last three sectors listed are tied for the tenth highest emitter).

Although all top emitting sectors in the Midcontinent can be found throughout the US, the Midcontinent region holds the majority of emissions from three particular sectors: biofuels (74 percent), steel (63 percent), and fertilizer (53 percent). Four of the five highest-emitting states for biofuels are within the Midcontinent region (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota).

The share of Midcontinent industrial emissions from the top eleven industry sectors
Note: The “Other” category includes all industrial sectors in the Midcontinent that are not among the top eleven sectors. Source: Elizabeth Abramson, Great Plains Institute, April 2020.

Of these top eleven subsectors, the origin of direct emissions varies greatly. Some sectors have only direct emissions from stationary combustion (starch and vegetable fats, and oils manufacturing), while other subsectors hold the majority of direct emissions in process emissions (waste management, fertilizer, industrial gases, and cement).

Distribution of direct on-site CO2 emissions for the top eleven emitting sectors in the Midcontinent region
Source: Elizabeth Abramson, Great Plains Institute, April 2020, based on EPA 2018. Note: Stationary combustion, electricity generation, fermentation, and process emissions are all direct emissions (types of onsite emissions sources). Indirect emissions, energy consumed by the facility but produced off-site, are not included in this graph.

For some top-emitting industrial sectors, non-biogenic CO2 is not the main GHG emitted. Methane and biogenic CO2 hold the leading share of GHGs found in waste management and pulp & paper emissions, with direct CO2 emissions accounting for only 5 to 26 percent of the GHG emissions share for each subsector. Biogenic CO2 is also found in biofuels emissions and N2O emissions are prevalent in fertilizer manufacturing. The share of GHG type for each top-emitting industrial sector can be found using the interactive map.

Geographical distribution of Midcontinent industrial emissions

The geographical distribution of the top eleven emitting sectors in the Midcontinent region differs among sectors, but localized industrial clusters are present. The Midcontinent region holds most of the US facilities for two sectors: biofuels (68 percent) and vegetable fats and oils (67 percent). Geographical distributions of the top emitting sectors in the Midcontinent can be explored using the interactive map.

Source: Elizabeth Abramson and Dane McFarlane, Great Plains Institute, April 2020, based on data from EPA 2018.

Some industries are evenly spread out throughout the region, such as waste management, while others are found in more localized clusters, such as industrial gases, organic chemicals, oil and gas extraction, and petroleum refining. Areas where localized clusters overlap for multiple industrial sectors, such as in Louisiana and Illinois, may hold opportunities for inter-sector collaboration on decarbonization.

Opportunities for collaboration on industrial emissions reduction

When looking at decarbonizing industry in the US, the industrial heartland of the country—the Midcontinent region—will play a central role. By looking at this region, we can see the unique characteristics of the industrial sector that make it so difficult to target for decarbonization techniques.

Implementation of industry-wide decarbonization clearly presents a challenge; not only does each industrial sector differ in its emissions sources and types, but each sector also has a unique geographic distribution. However, this overview shows that there are opportunities, such as localized industrial clusters, where beneficial collaboration on decarbonization could occur. There are also sectors with similar emissions sources where similar decarbonization strategies could be implemented. By finding and building on these relationships between industrial sectors, we can support effective policies and investments to incentivize the decarbonization of this complicated and essential sector.

Stay tuned for future posts on GPI’s work to decarbonize industry at the regional and federal level by signing up for our monthly newsletter. You can read a previous post about GPI Vice President Brad Crabtree’s Congressional testimony on the role of carbon capture in reducing industrial emissions and a post on our fall 2019 delegation to steel facilities using carbon capture to reduce industrial emissions.

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Carbon Management Program Associate, GPI

Alana joined GPI in 2024 as a program associate on the Carbon Management team, specifically supporting the Industrial Innovation Initiative, where she helps to advance industrial decarbonization through GPI’s consensus-building approach. Alana previously worked as an account executive at Jamf, where she helped current K-12 education customers improve and scale the management and security of their Apple device deployments. Alana has spent most of her professional years working with Minnesota nonprofits, including two years as an AmeriCorps member with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in community environmental studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Ankita Gangotra, Associate, WRI

Dr. Ankita Gangotra is an Associate in WRI’s US Climate Program, researching avenues to decarbonize the industrial sector, focusing on cement and steel decarbonization, environmental trade policies and international cooperation. Prior to joining WRI, Ankita was a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Physics at Georgetown University. Her research looked at the readily available technology and policy options for upgrading low-carbon cement production in the United States. Ankita has an integrated Master's in Electronics Engineering with Nanotechnology from the University of York, UK (2015) and a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Auckland, New Zealand (2020). During her time in New Zealand, Ankita interned at the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor looking into equity, diversity and inclusion policy options for New Zealand’s science, research and innovation workforce.

Carrie Dellesky, Program and Outreach Manager, Carbon Removal and Industrial Innovation, WRI

Carrie Dellesky is the Program and Outreach Manager for Carbon Removal and Industrial Innovation. She develops strategies to advance policies and practices for scaling up a suite of carbon removal approaches and decarbonizing the industrial sector. She engages allies and builds and expands partnerships to mobilize champions and enhance visibility, action and impact. She also leads communications to amplify research and thought leadership, including messaging, media relations, event planning, social media and digital strategy.

Zachary Byrum, Research Analyst, WRI

Zachary Byrum is a Research Analyst in WRI's U.S. Climate Program, where he provides technology and policy analysis for carbon removal and deep decarbonization. His work focuses on pathways to reduce industrial emissions as well as bolstering technological carbon removal. Prior to WRI, Zach was a research assistant in the Carbon Management Research Initiative at the Center on Global Energy Policy. In the preceding years, he served as White House Intern in the National Economic Council under the Obama Administration and then an assistant analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. Zach holds a Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a B.A. in Economics and Political Science from Goucher College.

Katie Lebling, Associate, WRI

Katie Lebling is an Associate in WRI's Climate Program where she works on research and analysis of technological carbon removal approaches and industrial decarbonization. Before joining WRI, she worked at The Asia Group, and interned at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum and the Treasury Department’s Office of Environment and Energy. She holds a Master's degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Energy, Resources, and the Environment, where she spent one year of the program studying in Nanjing, China, and has a B.A. from Colby College in Biology and Chinese language.

Debbie Weyl, Deputy Director, WRI United States

Debbie Karpay Weyl is the Deputy Director for WRI U.S. She previously served as Manager for the Buildings Initiative at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. She led an expanding global partnership to accelerate building energy efficiency in cities around the world. She also contributed to program management and development, research, and knowledge exchange for urban energy efficiency and sustainability. Debbie joined WRI from CLASP, a global non-profit organization that improves the environmental and energy performance of appliances, lighting and equipment. From 2011-2016 Debbie managed and developed global programs, led research projects, and facilitated collaboration among international experts and other representatives in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Prior to joining CLASP, Debbie worked at the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, where she was a contractor supporting building efficiency and other energy efficiency programs in the United States. Debbie holds a Master of Science in Environment and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a B.A. in Politics (Political Economy and International Relations) from Princeton University.

Angela Anderson, Director of Industrial Innovation and Carbon Removal, WRI United States

Angela Anderson is the Director of Industrial Innovation and Carbon Removal in the Climate Program. She leads WRI's growing portfolio of work in industrial decarbonization and carbon removal and aims to change narratives around “hard-to-abate” sectors and promote the natural and technological interventions required to achieve net-zero targets. Prior to joining WRI, Angela worked as a program director, coalition builder, international advocate, and campaign strategist. She led the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists for ten years; facilitated US-NGO engagement in the international climate negotiations while at US Climate Action Network and at the Pew Environmental Trust; and founded Clear the Air, a national coalition to reduce pollution from power plants. Angela holds a B.A. in political science from Colorado State University.

Patrice Lahlum, Vice President of Carbon Management, GPI

Patrice Lahlum is the vice president of the Carbon Management program at the Great Plains Institute. The Institute, headquartered in Minneapolis, MN, works with diverse stakeholders and communities across the country to transform the energy system to benefit people, the economy, and the environment. We strive to combine our unique consensus-building approach, expert knowledge and analysis, and local action to promote solutions that strengthen communities, shore up the nation’s industrial base, and enhance domestic energy independence, all while eliminating carbon emissions. Patrice oversees several initiatives including the Carbon Capture Coalition, Industrial Innovation Initiative, Carbon Action Alliance, and the Regional Carbon Capture Deployment Initiative.

Kate Sullivan, Senior Program Coordinator, Carbon Management, GPI

Kate Sullivan joined the Great Plains Institute in 2019. As Senior rogram Coordinator, Kate uses her analytical and design skills to provide research, writing, and logistical support across the Carbon Management team. Prior to joining GPI, Kate worked as an Energy Counselor in the Center for Energy and Environment’s residential department, assisting homeowners with their energy needs and providing resources for efficiency upgrades. Kate earned her BA in Biology from St. Olaf College with an emphasis in Environmental Studies.

David Soll, Industrial Decarbonization Manager, GPI

David Soll joined the Great Plains Institute in 2023 and serves as Industrial Decarbonization Manager. He oversees the Industrial Innovation Initiative, a coalition advancing decarbonization solutions for the Midcontinent region’s most important industrial sectors. Prior to joining GPI, he taught history and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he focused on urban infrastructure and energy conservation. David earned a Master’s in government from the University of Texas at Austin and a PhD in history from Brandeis University.

Jill Syvrud, Senior Program Manager, Carbon Management, GPI

Jill Syvrud joined the Great Plains Institute in 2017 and serves as the program manager for the Carbon Management Program. In addition to overseeing the overall program, Jill directly supports the Industrial Innovation Initiative, a coalition advancing decarbonization solutions for the Midcontinent region’s most important industrial sectors. Jill earned a bachelor of science in biology from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire and a master of science degree in science technology and environmental policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Jill’s past experience includes multiple graduate research assistantships concentrating on technology innovation and sustainable megacities along and a previous position as an administrative and outreach coordination intern with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.