On May 23, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially announced that it would delay the enforcement of rules intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills for 90 days. The EPA finalized these rules in August 2016 as part of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions, and several members of the waste management industry petitioned the EPA to reconsider the rules shortly after they were published.

In defense of the stay, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt stated, “EPA is continuing to ensure that the public has the opportunity to comment on agency actions. Reconsidering portions of the landfill rules will give stakeholders the opportunity to review these requirements, assess economic impacts and provide feedback to the agency through the reconsideration process.” The rules had already undergone a public comment period before being finalized, per the typical regulatory review process. But the Clean Air Act gives the EPA administrator the authority to reconsider rules if the administrator determines that 1) it was impossible for the petitioner to raise concerns during the public comment period, or if these concerns emerged after the comment period closed, and 2) the cause for the petition is critical to the implementation of the rule.

Landfill gas primarily consists of methane and carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane is a greenhouse gas that is highly effective at absorbing heat, contributing to 25 percent of global warming. The Environmental Defense Fund reports that for 20 years after it is first released, methane traps 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2. While wetlands and oceans naturally produce methane, human activity causes 70 percent of global methane emissions. Landfills are the third-largest contributor of methane emissions in the United States, behind oil and natural gas systems and livestock farming.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must review performance standards every eight years and revise them if necessary. In August 2016, the EPA finalized updates to its New Source Performance Standards and Emission Guidelines to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing municipal solid waste landfills. The updated rules would most notably lower the overall emissions threshold at which landfills are required to install gas collection and control systems (GCCS) from 50 megagrams per year (Mg/yr) to 34 Mg/yr. To increase flexibility of the rules, certain landfills would be allowed to use a new testing method (known as Tier 4) to determine whether they are required to install new equipment. Landfills that exhibit emissions greater than 34 Mg/yr through traditional Tier 1, 2, and 3 testing methods would not be required to install a GCCS if Tier 4 tests showed four consecutive quarters with surface methane emissions below 500 parts per million. However, landfills with total emissions greater than 50 Mg/yr would not be able to use Tier 4 monitoring. The finalized rules were expected to reduce methane emissions by 334 thousand tons each year starting in 2025.

In addition to climate benefits, reducing methane emissions can benefit public health and the economy. Rising methane and carbon emissions have been linked to an increase in asthma attacks. Methane can be captured from landfills and processed into renewable natural gas (RNG). Methane released as a byproduct of burning RNG absorbs 21 times less heat than methane released directly into the atmosphere. A 2017 report by ICF finds that replacing petroleum-based diesel fuel with RNG in California’s heavy-duty trucks alone could create over 130,000 jobs and add $14 billion in economic activity by 2030. According to Anne Germain from the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), “By capturing the landfill gas and turning it into energy, we can power homes and factories, and even cars. Sometimes, the trucks that pick up the waste and recycling are themselves powered by the trash that they pick up.”

Although NWRA supports the use of methane as a source of energy, its comments on EPA’s proposed updates state that the “reduction in methane emissions does not justify the additional costs associated with implementing the lower threshold.” According to the EPA, the national net costs of the updated rules are estimated at $60 million in 2025, while the climate-related benefits are valued at $512 million in 2025. Kerry Kelly of Waste Management, Inc., said her organization petitioned EPA to reconsider its rules because they are not feasible as written. She also argued that the rules "created redundant and conflicting layers of regulations on landfills with no apparent benefit to the environment."

The EPA’s official notice of the 90-day stay primarily addresses issues raised against Tier 4 surface emissions monitoring. While the proposed rules were open for public comment, they did not mention that landfills with emissions greater than 50 Mg/yr would not be able to use Tier 4 monitoring. This could have potentially posed a challenge to operators seeking compliance with the National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), which requires landfills to install and operate a GCCS if their emissions exceed 50 Mg/yr. The official notice argues, “If we had the benefit of public comment on the restrictions, we might have structured the rule in such a way as to minimize any potential impacts on flexibility.”

An EPA statement regarding the stay says, “Consistent with President Trump’s Energy Independence Executive Order, EPA will continue to review these actions to ensure that they protect the environment and enable a growing economy.” The executive order instructs agencies to “review all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions (collectively, agency actions) that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources” and rescinds the Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions. The EPA is expected to produce a new proposed rule regarding landfill methane emissions for public comment.


Author: Sara Tanigawa