California landfills now required to capture methane
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The Altamont landfill near San Francisco started generating electricity from the methane in the landfill 20 years ago. With two gas turbine engines and two internal combustion engines, the Waste Management, Inc. facility produces approximately 8 megawatts of electricity – enough to power the equivalent of more than 6,000 homes.

Even though the Altamont landfill has been generating electricity from methane for the past 20 years, even it may need to make some changes in order to comply with new California Air Resources Board regulations.

Even though all 12 methane producing landfills in California owned by the Houston-based waste management company already have active gas collection systems installed, the company may have to make some changes to its landfill operations thanks to new regulations adopted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in June.

The new rules require all landfills throughout the state to capture methane gas. New gas collection and control systems will need to be installed at 14 uncontrolled municipal solid waste landfills by 2012, according to CARB. The regulations are also designed to reduce emissions at landfills with existing collection and control systems.

“Based on extensive monitoring at three of our California landfills, we believe that our landfills can meet and possibly exceed the state’s goal of achieving a methane capture efficiency of 85 percent,” said Chuck White, Waste Management’s director of regulatory affairs. “Waste Management is committed to operating in full compliance.”

CARB estimates that 218 of the state’s 367 landfills may be subjected to the new regulations. Once implemented, however, the regulations are estimated to reduce 1.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, according to CARB.

California often leads the way when it comes to new regulations. But White said he is not aware of any other states planning to adopt similar standards for landfills. “Waste Management is committed to working with individual states to ensure that our landfills are controlling the methane emissions to the fullest possible extent,” White said.

Waste Management currently operates 273 active landfills across North America. Plus, the company already operates 16 waste-to-energy plants across the country, producing enough electricity from waste to power the equivalent of 1 million homes. “We are committed to doubling this energy output by the year 2020,” White said.

Dan Jameson, vice president of marketing and municipal services at Republic Services, Inc., said that he expects other states may follow California’s lead and adopt tougher standards for landfills as a way to try and control greenhouse-gas emissions.

Republic Services, based in Phoenix, is the second-largest solid waste company in the United States. It currently owns and operates 213 landfills around the country.

“We hope that the implementation of these regulations in California will allow us to gain experience with these standards to determine if they produce actual emission reductions, are safe and cost effective,” Jameson said, noting that the new regulations may also assist other states to develop similar greenhouse-gas reduction strategies.

“These new regulations, while we will support them, will require a significant increase in the cost of solid waste management in California,” Jameson said. “The proposed regulations will impose a stringent and costly new monitoring and reporting requirements to control greenhouse gas emissions for most landfills in California.”

The greenhouse gas emission regulations will also require owners and operators of smaller landfills in the state that do not have gas collection and control systems to install new systems. “Republic will support and follow the new regulations, but it’s important to know that there is a cost of environmental compliance,” Jameson said.

Emission controls on landfills may not be the only new regulations to impact landfill operations in the future. Cap-and-trade legislation may also eventually force the owners of landfills to change their operations in California and around the country.

In the early rounds of negotiations, though, California landfills are not being considered for cap-and-trade, Jameson said. “CARB has instead opted to use command-and-control measures rather than market mechanisms to limit emissions,” he said.

While it is still unclear how the United States Congress or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might view landfills in an eventual cap-and-trade system, Jameson said he is hopeful that federal regulators will not take California’s approach.

Bruce Parker, president and chief executive officer of the Washington D.C. trade group, the National Solid Wastes Management Association, said members are pleased that under the current House of Representatives bill, landfills are not included under the emissions cap and that landfill gas recovery will be eligible for renewable energy credits.

“An important purpose of offsets is to provide cost-containment and price moderation to capped sources so that they can phase in new technology for reducing greenhouse gas emissions without imposing avoidable economic hardship,” Parker said.

Until the cap-and-trade issue is settled on a national level, Parker said that he does not expect any other states to follow California’s lead and impose new emission standards for landfills. “My sense is that whatever the EPA develops as a performance standard under the cap-and-trade legislation will be adopted by other states,” Parker said.

The solid waste industry was generally supportive of the rulemaking effort in California, said Patrick Sullivan, senior vice president at SCS Engineers, a consulting firm headquartered in Long Beach, California with offices located around the country.

“We understood early in the process that CARB wanted to see additional reductions from landfills, and we, from the beginning, worked with CARB staff on the rules in a constructive manner,” he said. “Now, that does not necessarily mean that everyone in the industry is completely happy with the rules. The rules reflect some degree of compromise between CARB, the landfill industry and other stakeholders.”

Since California already has an extensive landfill gas system due to other regulations, Sullivan said, the new reductions will be more difficult and costly.

“What is left uncontrolled represents only a small percentage of the refuse in place in California landfills. Because the regulations will affect smaller landfills, there will be no economies of scale, and the rule is likely to have a greater relative impact and cost for small, rural landfills, many of which are owned by municipalities,” he said.

The regulations also come at a terrible time in terms of the economy, Sullivan said. Every regulated site in the state will have to spend more money on collection and control, at a minimum, including additional monitoring. In the worst case scenario, landfill owners will need to install and operate a completely new landfill gas system.

“We hope it is ultimately worth it when we see the additional methane reductions that are created. CARB and the solid waste industry are going into this with a huge amount of uncertainty of how successful the rules will ultimately be,” Sullivan said.