July 24, 2014
Faced with implacable opposition to climate action in the House of Representatives, the White House brought John Podesta on board in 2013 to develop executive actions to move the ball forward.
In March, the Administration announced a methane strategy, directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt rules to significantly reduce the methane emissions from landfills and other major sources.
That focus followed calls by leading climate scientists to work around the political impasse over long term CO2 reductions, because “to suppress temperature quickly in order to preserve glaciers,” they advised, “reducing methane can make an immediate impact.” Moreover, they added, “[c]ompared to the massive requirements necessary to reduce CO2, cutting methane requires only modest investment. Where we stop methane emissions, cooling within a decade, not centuries. That could make the difference for many fragile systems on the brink.”
At the end of June, the EPA responded to the President with an advance notice of rule-making for existing and new landfills.
The package could not be described as an overly zealous response to a world on the verge of an existential crisis. Instead of rules, the document turned out to be merely an advance announcement of possible future rule-making, with any actual proposed rule delayed until March of 2015, and final rule, 2016.
That would not have been quite so dispiriting had the agency even hinted of the possibility of real action down the road that would significantly reduce methane emissions from landfills. Sadly, dismay piled on top of disappointment as the agency’s solid waste office (OSWER), deployed misdirection to take the White House’s eyes off the prize with ersatz recommendations. Not for no reason, after all, had Waste Management’s founders, Dean Buntrock and Phil Rooney, boasted to Forbes in 1993, shortly after the first federal landfill standards were watered down to their satisfaction, that “regulation has been very good to us.”
OSWER’s notice is so jam-packed with passing references to such a potpourri of varied and contradictory prescriptions, in one sense it may seem difficult to exclude the thought that everything from the good, the bad to the ugly is under consideration.
On the other, because EPA has only developed cost-benefit analyses on two, one of which was explicitly rejected as too inconvenient for mega-sized landfill operators, the reader can glean what most likely may be anticipated.
That is to ever so slightly lower the emissions threshold that triggers the obligation for a very large landfill operator to install a gas collection system (technically from 50 Mg to 40 Mg of non-methanic organic compounds per year) so that a few more large sites will have to do so, along with those very large landfills currently mandated to comply.
The net effect of that change, according to EPA’s numbers: a grand total of a 3.5 percent reduction in methane released.
As it works with one hand to undermine focuses the White House’s attention on this minutia, OSWER blithely ignored the elephant in the room, which is the integral final cover that its own rules mandate be installed within the year after a landfill fills. Integral because, without a cover, gas collection systems simply do not work. For they rely on vacuum forces to extract gas, which can only function as designed when there is a seal on top of the landfill. Otherwise, the negative pressures dissipate and, far worse, oxygen from the surface, which is drawn into the pipes, mixes with the methane. That threatens deadly landfill fires, which necessitates short-circuiting the system.
“Despite these [cover] rules,” EPA’s notice acknowledges, “landfill operators often leave intermediate cover in place for years or even decades and intermediate cover frequently is the only cover on the majority of the landfill surface.”
Inexplicably, even though OSWER admits that this failure to install a final cover “has a direct and significant effect on LFG emissions,” it proposes nothing to address the fatal flaw in gas collection systems.
Worse, not only did OSWER’s notice fail to rectify the industry’s cover violations, it actually proposed to worsen that situation by giving the infractions the cloak of respectability. OSWER indicated that it might undermine the most important methane fighting program in our arsenal. That is the more than 20 states that currently ban yard trimmings from landfills, which dramatically reduces the volume of decomposable material available to generate gas in the first instance. Then, once the grass and leaves are composted and spread on farmland, fertility is returned to our depleted soils.
To most of us, that sounds as American as apple pie, but, to Waste Management, that sounded like losing tip fees on 20 percent of the wastes otherwise destined to pay tip fees at its landfills, which is why it has been lobbying the Florida, Georgia and Michigan legislatures to repeal their yard bans. Whatever its motivation, OSWER’s notice aligns itself with the landfill companies. Layering chipped leaves and grass back on top of landfills in lieu of a proper cover, it opines, is a splendid way to oxidize some of the escaping methane, blithely ignoring the known fact that poor seals comprise total gas collection.
In 2009, I was asked to participate as an independent landfill expert in a meeting between OSWER and environmental organizations about landfill air regulations. During a break out in the hall, I asked one of the agency’s long time staffers what he thought of the new Administration’s appointment to lead the office. “OSWER’s political appointees come and go,” he pityingly educated me, “but nothing ever changes.”
Many climate hawks criticize President Obama for supporting fracking and off shore oil drilling at the same time as he calls for limits on coal power. To my colleagues, I respond that they may need to cut the Administration some slack for the realpolitik of the $6.44 trillion oil and gas industry’s clout in Washington.
But, some of the country’s best and brightest advising the President may be well put to dig into the weeds of the bureaucracy at the terrible damage regulatory capture is afflicting on their earnest efforts to achieve substantive progress in the Administration’s back nine. After all, if they cannot overcome objections by a minor industry less than 1 percent that of the fossil industry, what hope is there?
Peter Anderson is president of RecycleWorlds Consulting, executive director of the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, and project director for the multi-state Plastic Redesign Project. He has been senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin Department of Applied Economics on recycling systems, chairman of the National Recycling Coalition Policy Workgroup and its landfill subcommittee, and landfill consultant for the Grassroots Recycling Network. He has been a keynote panel speaker at the Environmental Protection Agency’s national bioreactor conference, and a member of its peer review committee on landfill’s responsibility for greenhouse gases and climate change. He has also prepared a major independent evaluation of landfill financial assurance for the California Integrated Waste Management Board and another on landfill gases contribution greenhouse gases for the EPA.