As satellites reveal huge methane leaks from landfills across the USA, the Biden Administration has run out of time to tackle them before November’s election.
When garbage is taken to a landfill, bacteria decompose it and produce methane as a by-product. Unless this gas is captured, it heats up the planet.
Using satellites, scientists can now see how big these leaks are. Ilse Aben, who analyses satellite data at the SRON Netherlands institute for space research, told Climate Home she been “shocked” at the “huge” scale of the leaks.
Climate Trace, an NGO promoted led by former US vice-president Al Gore, estimates the US’s landfill emissions at 169 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year.
That’s similar to the whole of Ethiopia’s emissions and a third higher than the 126 million tonnes the US government tells the United Nations its landfills emit, a figure worked out using a formula.
But, in its fourth year in power, campaigners say Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has missed its chance to improve regulations on the sector.
Kait Siegel campaigns against waste sector emissions at the Clean Air Task Force. She told Climate Home that US federal regulations on landfills are “weak”.
The companies which operate landfills are supposed to capture this gas but not for the landfill’s first five years and not if it’s a smaller landfill – broad exceptions which don’t apply in most European countries.
US states can force operators to do more to clean up but so far only California, Maryland and Oregon have done so, she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is legally required to assess whether new federal standards for landfills are necessary at least every eight years. The last time it did so was in August 2016 so it should do so again by August 2024.
But they are unlikely to set new standards. At this stage, campaigners don’t want them to either because they don’t want to risk a Trump administration taking over that process.
In the US, legislation called the Congressional Review Act means a new Congress can overturn measures taken by the previous Congress in its last 60 legislative days. With Presidential and Congressional elections in November, anything introduced after April could be challenged.
There’s not enough time to introduce new regulations before April, so any regulations introduced could be overturned by a Trump administration.
If overturned, any future EPA wouldn’t be legally allowed to submit similar regulations again. This could permanently stop the EPA from tackling landfill emissions.
On the other hand, if the presidency remains in the Democrats hands then they could focus on it in the second term.
The waste management lobby is powerful in the US as it works closely with local governments to manage trash. It argues that any cost increase in operating landfills will be passed on to local governments who will pass them on to ordinary citizens.
On the other side of the argument, with the scale of the problem only recently revealed, climate campaigners have yet to make landfills the big climate issue that fossil fuels are.
Until satellites started revealing these landfill leaks, policy-makers could only guess how much methane was coming from a landfill.
In its reporting to the UN, the EPA uses a complex formula to work out its best estimate. Basically, it estimated how much the average landfill emits, multiplied this by the number of landfills and took away the amount of gas they think was captured before it reaches the atmosphere. This is common way for countries to report emissions.
But satellites can see how much methane is actually emitted, rather than a best guess. With their cameras pointed at individual landfills, they show huge leaks.
American nonprofit CarbonMapper spotted a leak of 5,000 kg of methane an hour from the Fort Bend landfill on the outskirts of Houston. If this continued all year, it would cause the same damage as 270,000 cars or the nation of Antigua and Barbuda.
But scientists have yet to use satellites to come up with a better figure for the US’s total emissions. Their cameras have focussed on particular sites at particular times rather than non-stop monitoring of all the hundreds of American landiflls.
To get round these limitations, Climate Trace combine satellite imagery with their own assumptions, using Bayesian regression modelling, giving them their 169 million tonnes figure.
There are many ways of reducing landfill emissions. The best, Siegel said, is to reduce waste we produce so as little goes to landfill as possible.
After that, she said people should seperate their organic waste (like food and garden waste) so that it can be more easily sent to treatment facilities.
Most food waste can be composted before it rots and releases methane. The compost can be put on new plants to help them grow.
It can also be burned in incinerators to produce electricity. But campaigners have disputed the environmental benefits of this and scientists have linked incinerators, which are predominately located in poor communities, to health problems.
If the garbage does rot and release methane, that gas can be captured. It can be burned, turning it into less potent but still planet-warming carbon dioxide. This burning can produce electricity, potentially displacing other fossil fuels.
As an example of somewhere doing it well, definitely “better than the West”, Siegel points to Indore in India. There, according to the United Nations, residents dilligently seperate their waste and turn it into compost.
A spokesperson for the EPA said that “regulating landfill gas is one of EPA’s many priorities to help combat climate change” and they would review the regulations and “if approriate” revise them.
The spokesperson said they were beginning to collect information on new technologies and strategies for emissions reduction, taking into account cost, health and environmental impacts and energy requirements.
They added that the EPA has an outreach programme which works with industry and government to cut methane emissions from landfills.