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Passing on Gas?

AFTER DECADES OF STRUGGLING with methane emissions, we have finally recognized the importance of this resource and made a bold commitment. But don’t extinguish those flares yet. It’s true that the United States has pledged $53 million over the next five years to develop and promote methane recovery and use, but those funds will be heading to other countries.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., recently announced that the United States will join with Australia, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the United Kingdom and Ukraine to develop and promote the recovery and use of methane in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Many in the waste industry have applauded the Methane to Markets partnership, noting that it will reduce emissions equivalent to removing 33 million cars from the road for one year. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that American companies could potentially reap the benefits of implementing their technologies abroad. But our support of this partnership still begs the question, "What about us?"

The efforts to air out and energize America through LFGE have been spotty, at best. Projects were more prolific in the ’90s, when such operations benefited from Section 29 tax credits. Despite the efforts of LFGE supporters, such as the Solid Waste Association of North America, Congress has not passed a similar tax credit since 1998. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising since we don’t have universal agreement in our own industry of the benefits of using landfill gas. Composters and recyclers always have argued that the credits were harmful because they promoted landfilling at the expense of recycling.

Like everything else on the resource recovery side of our industry, LFGE does not operate in an economic vacuum. As the price of energy rises, so do the potential fortunes of recovering and using methane gas. We all know that if the price of gas went sky high, scores of companies would be sniffing around the methane tank and smelling money. However, if the economics are not working, then we have to decide if LFGE is important enough for our nation to support through such means as reinstating the tax credits. The basic problem in methane recovery is trying to determine its level of importance to us. The industry has proved time and again that LFGE projects work and that the technology is viable and improving. Yet we have only dabbled in energy recovery of this kind.

Rather than allowing LFGE to float in limbo, we should decide if it is important to America and its environment, then commit to it — the same way we’ve pledged our support abroad. LFGE is a viable option that we should seriously consider. If we want to clear our air and encourage another source of energy, then we should make a large-scale LFGE effort in our own country, embrace our gas, then burn right through it.