The Waiting Game

Waste industry officials are keeping an eye on proposed greenhouse gas (GHG) emission control programs in the U.S. House and Senate, but don't expect a resolution to come anytime soon. Waste officials have been submitting comments and recommendations concerning any proposed programs and say future legislation would be best targeted toward other industries, such as public power plants and the auto and oil industries, which represent the biggest producers of greenhouse gases.

“Waste companies are very far down the list of producers,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA). “Do they really want to step over dollars to pick up pennies? It's a very complex issue with many competing interests.”

In March, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) submitted comments and recommendations to U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, regarding potential GHG control programs. In its comments, SWANA argued that the solid waste industry already uses improved practices that significantly reduce GHG emissions that contribute to global warming.

Many landfills, especially larger the commercial ones, already trap methane gas, refine it and sell it as a renewable energy source. Some companies are turning their recycling efforts into additional revenue by transferring GHG emission reduction credits through trade markets such as the Chicago Climate Exchange. According to a SWANA press release, the application of modern technologies in waste management — chiefly, the control and utilization of landfill gas, combustion and recovery in waste-to-energy facilities, and recycling and composting — have reduced GHG emissions by 120 to 190 million tons of carbon dioxide per year despite municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal volumes in the United States growing by more than 100 million tons per year over the past 30 years.

Among its recommendations, SWANA would like the proposed program to be market based; to recognize the significant GHG reductions resulting from modern MSW management; to expand energy recovery through recycling; to create financial incentives for energy recovery, recycling and the use of MSW in alternative fuels; and to include a cap-and-trade program that is multi-sector, transparent, rules-based and verifiable, including GHG offsets for energy recovery and recycling.

“We are hopeful that the committee will apply our recommendations to any national greenhouse gas control program that is developed and will look to SWANA as a resource in the development process,” said John Skinner, CEO of SWANA, in a press release.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions because they meet the definition of a pollutant. The ruling serves as yet another example to waste companies of the importance of addressing their GHG emissions. Although the ruling primarily impacts the auto industry, Skinner says it gives further impetus to broader GHG legislation in the future.

“It's hard to tell at this point if the consensus is strong enough to move legislation,” says Skinner. He notes that the next presidential administration could have a dramatic effect on the speed at which such legislation could come. Right now, he says, there is enough momentum to pass legislation in the next three years.

Congress already has begun a process of hearings to determine the degree of responsibility industries must shoulder for emission cuts, as well as the benefits and incentives anticipated for those reductions.

“It's going to take a long time for hearings,” says Parker, who cited the upcoming election and reauthorization bills among other issues that will drag out the legislative process. “I don't see it happening in the near future.”