Per capita CO2 emissions are several times higher in the "red" states of the West and South than it is in the Northeast. I cannot imagine why.

From "List of U.S. states by carbon dioxide emissions" on Wikipedia:

States by CO2 emissions

  • Probably because of coal use and oil/gas development. Western red states mine a lot.
    – farrenthorpe
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 22:59
  • I would say more driving and greater distances between stuff. I don't think this is an Earth Science question though. It's more about infrastructure and usage. Not sure what board it would belong in.
    – userLTK
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 5:04
  • 1
    As a non American, what are "red states" & should I care?
    – Fred
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 9:02
  • Could suit in Sustainability SE.
    – Communisty
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 9:44
  • When I heat my home I am also heating the homes of four neighbors and they do the same for me. We live in apartments and share party walls.
    – AllInOne
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 10:39

2 Answers 2


tl;dr - Comparing Wyoming to, say, New York, the largest source of CO2 emissions in both states is the power sector. Wyoming uses mostly coal for power, which emits more CO2 per kWh generated than any other source, while NY uses a mix of mostly natural gas, with nuclear and hydro. Additionally, Wyoming exports power (increasing emissions counts) while NY imports (reducing emissions counts). Finally, the average Wyomingite uses about four times the power of the average New Yorker, possibly due to higher participation in industry.

CO2 emissions by sector

Using the EPA's FLIGHT database (Facility Level Information on Green House gases Tool -- a terrible, terrible acronym) I compared Wyoming to New York, being the largest state in the Northeast (geographically and by population). All data throughout this post is for 2014 to match the map in the question.

For both Wyoming and New York, the largest point source of CO2 emissions is the power sector, by a lot:

New York

NY CO2e emissions by sector, 2014


WY CO2e emissions by sector, 2014

Carbon emissions by electric generation source

The Energy Information Administration's Detailed State Electricity Data provides data on power generation and associated carbon emissions by fuel source, by state. Here's the breakdown of generation sources for the two states:

Generation by source, WY and NY, 2014

Because coal-fired generation emits CO2 at about twice the rate of natural gas-fired generation, we start to see why Wyoming's emissions are so high. New York's emissions are limited by its reliance on hydro, nuclear, and less carbon-intense natural gas.

This is confirmed by combining the above data with the populations for 2014:

Carbon emissions per capita, by fuel source, NY and WY (2014)

The disparity here is massive. A few things explain this. First, on a per capita basis, Wyoming generates 10 times as much power as New York: Total generation for NY in 2014 was about 138 TWh, or about 7,000 kWh per person (population of around 20 million). In contrast, total generation in WY was about 50 TWh, or about 85,000 kWh per person (population of around 0.5 million).

However, that doesn't directly correlate to what each person uses. According to EIA's electric sales data, total sales of electricity in NY were 147 TWh, compared to in-state generation of 138 TWh. This means that 11 TWh, or about 7.5%, of the power consumed in NY was produced in other states (and some in Canada). In contrast, generation in Wyoming totaled 50 TWh, compared to sales of 17 TWh -- meaning Wyoming exported 66% of the power it produced.

Here's the per capita breakdown by sector for each state:

Per capita electric sales by sector (kWh, NY and WY, 2014)

In the residential and commercial sectors, usage is about double, likely due to lower costs of land, power, and labor. The industrial sector is about 20 times greater. While sales of electricity to industry is greater as a whole in NY, the per capita sales in Wyoming are far greater, meaning on average more Wyomingites are involved in industry than New Yorkers. (The data to back this assumption up is likely available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but I don't have the patience to dig through and find it.)

Why does Wyoming use so much coal, while NY uses natural gas?

Ultimately this has more to do with economics than politics. Coal is mined in Wyoming, so it's burned there. Natural gas is extracted in Pennsylvania, NY's neighbor to the south and west. Moving electricity is easier than moving coal, so it's burned where it's mined (especially lignite coal). In the northeast, natural gas is piped around for heating, so the infrastructure backbone to move it around for electric generation is already there. Hydro power makes sense in NY because of the abundance of freshwater. Nuclear power is prevalent in NY because when the U.S. was building nuclear power plants, there was a dense enough population in NY to justify this, along with abundant surface water for cooling, and a skilled workforce. Wyoming didn't have any of these, so the nukes were built in the Northeast.

Recent trends in power generation sources have to do with politics -- NY is shutting down coal and nuclear and adding more wind and solar -- but the current state of affairs was brought about by the economics of cheap, abundant natural gas.

What about transportation?

The FLIGHT data at the top only includes point sources. In the transportation sector, Wyoming wins out. From the EIA's data on retail gasoline sales, the average New Yorker used about 94 L of gasoline in 2014, while the average Wyomingite used 29 L. However, at 2.3 kg CO2 per liter of gasoline, NY's total of 4.3 million metric tons of CO2 from gasoline still pales in comparison to the 34 million metric tons from the power sector.


Good answer elsewhere that points out that Wyoming generates and exports a lot of coal source power, which badly skews the data.

But let's just look at the more general question: Why does a Wyoming resident USE more energy than someone in a more urban setting?

There are a bunch of possibilities:

  • Long cold winters.

A high plains winter is no joke. Much of Wyoming still has several FEET on snow in mid May. This creates a high demand for heating fuel.

Long winters also mean that 'carbon friendly' commuting (bike, walk, scooter, motorbike) has a shorter season, and that due to that shorter season is chosen by fewer people even when it is an option.

  • High elevation.

Much of Wyoming is close to 7000' Unless you adjust your engine to run leaner, you will tend to use too much fuel. (Modern engines may adjust for this, but anything with a carburetor won't)

  • Dry climate.

Vehicles don't rust very fast. This encourages people to hold on to them longer. Older cars are less efficient. On top of that the low population, and more expensive transport will raise new car prices, further encouraging long term use.

  • Low density population.

People drive more, compared to north-easterners. Where you are going is far from where you are. The low density also means that public transport system are either non-existant, or are low on convenience.

A lot of Wyoming people are rural -- farm and ranch folk -- which makes this worse.

Land is cheap. It's reasonable to own a quarter section 20 miles from town.

  • High infra-structure costs per person.

It costs the same to run a snowplow over a road whether that road is used by 20 people an hour or 300 people per hour. Roads deteriorate from use, (especially heavy trucks) but also from weather. Freeze thaw cycles are tough on roads.

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