Failing Landfill Projects Increase U.S. GHG Emissions

Apathy toward U.S. landfill gas capture projects means that more methane is being released into the atmosphere.
Aug 1, 2013 7:15 PM ET

By Mark Mondik

For more than five years, proceeds from the sale of carbon offsets have played a vital role in helping fund the implementation and operation of gas collection and control systems (GCCS) at small to mid-size landfills in the U.S.  In fact, for some projects, carbon offsets are the only source of revenue to meet annual operating costs, which run well into the tens (and often hundreds) of thousands of dollars per year.

These figures may not amount to much on the financial statements of major landfill operators like Waste Management, Inc., but in reality the vast majority of voluntary GCCS's are owned and operated by rural and semi-rural municipalities and small private landfills with limited financial resources.  Potential revenue from the sale of carbon offsets made a GCCS look economically feasible for many of them, but for some the market has let them down as offset buyers have failed to turn up in sufficient numbers.

The news isn't all bad.  TerraPass continues to rally support for some projects from individuals and a growing number of leading companies concerned about climate change, which has helped to lead to an overall decrease in U.S. landfill emissions each year since 2008.  The concern, however, is that this trend might be reversing.  Not only are new landfill gas projects not being built (we haven't seen a new one since 2011), but some existing ones may be effectively dismantling.

Over the past year, we have become aware of several methane capture projects at U.S. landfills that have stopped maintaining their GCCS due to a lack of support for their carbon offsets.  This is a genuine problem:  Without revenue to fund proper GCCS maintenance, monitoring, and investment, these systems tend to break down over time and capture increasingly less methane.  And according to the EPA, U.S. landfill methane still accounts for more than 100 million metrics tons of carbon annually—the equivalent of over 20 million U.S. cars.

Some environmentalists ask:  why doesn't the EPA just require landfills to capture methane, and why do we need carbon offsets at all?  The answer is that the EPA does require some landfills—the big ones—to capture methane.  The only landfills that aren't required to do so are predominantly small to mid-size landfills located in rural and semi-rural areas that can't afford the +/-$1 million upfront investment and ongoing operating costs without external support.  And that's where carbon offsets come in.[1]

Fortunately, TerraPass-sponsored landfill gas projects continue to enjoy the collective support of its community.  Some TerraPass corporate partners have even chosen to "adopt" an otherwise troubled landfill project by signing an agreement to purchase the project's carbon offsets on a long-term basis.  This provides the income and security that landfill owners need to continue destroying methane, reducing other air and water pollutants, and creating employment in their local communities.

Adopting an entire project is not the only way to fund operating expenses for these projects. Individuals and small businesses can also join together to support these projects through the purchase of carbon offsets, which in aggregate provides the funding needed to cover annual expenses and save these projects from abandonment.  

[1] It is worth noting that, as a rule, landfills that are required by law to capture methane gas are not eligible to produce carbon offsets.