In Newest Climate Push, EPA Proposes To Limit Methane Pollution From Trash Dumps

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steven Senne

As part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday announced its intention to make massive trash dumps across the country reduce their emissions of methane — a powerful greenhouse gas that causes at least 25 times more global warming than carbon dioxide.

The plan, which the EPA drew up using its authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, includes proposed regulations for new landfills, and a call for suggestions on whether the agency should issue regulations for existing landfills. The EPA said the regulations are needed not only to reduce climate change, but to reduce air pollution that winds up harming public health.

“There is now scientific consensus that [greenhouse gases] affect climate change, and this scientific consensus increases the need for the EPA to examine regulatory options for reducing methane emissions,” the rule said. “Elevated concentrations of [greenhouse gases] in the atmosphere may reasonably be anticipated to endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”

Landfills produce air pollution from the sheer volume of solid waste that sits in them. As the waste sits, it begins to break down, releasing what’s commonly known as “landfill gas” — a mixture of a variety of air toxins, including carbon dioxide. Landfill gas is mostly, however, made up of methane — so much that 18 percent of all methane emissions come from landfills. That’s the third-largest source of methane emissions in the country, behind agriculture and natural gas production. Methane accounts for nearly 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

The EPA’s plan seeks to reduce those emissions by issuing regulations for new landfills. Under those regulations, new landfills would only be allowed to put one third of their methane emissions into the atmosphere. The rest of their emissions — two thirds of all the methane they put into the atmosphere — would have to be captured. New landfills would have until 2023 to meet this requirement.

After methane is captured, it can be converted into an energy source, which landfill operators can then sell to fuel power plants, vehicles, and so on. Of the 1,900 landfills in the United States, approximately 560 are using techniques to capture methane gas and turn it into electricity.

In addition to the proposed regulations on new landfills, the EPA also issued what’s called an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for existing landfills. This means that the EPA is thinking about issuing regulations on methane emissions from landfills that already exist, but wants to solicit public comment first.

The rules likely come as a relief to environmental groups, who have actively been pushing the EPA to issue regulations on methane from landfills for years. In fact, one of the reasons the EPA released the rule on Tuesday was because of a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in 2011, claiming the EPA had failed to update pollution standards for landfills by their required deadline, in violation of the Clean Air Act. As of now, pollution rules for landfills haven’t been updated since 1996.

Because of that lawsuit, the EPA entered into a settlement, agreeing to consider revising the standards. EDF did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment on whether the proposal lived up to their expectations.

As for how much the new regulations will cost, the EPA estimated that the net nationwide cost of complying with the rule would be $471,000 per year. A spokeperson for Waste Management Inc., one of the largest landfill operators in the country, said the company was still reviewing the rule.