California landfills now required to capture methane
by Brian R. Hook
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 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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
“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.