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Climate Change Hero

Climate Change Blog

  • 27
  • July
  • 2016


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EPA Finalizes Rule on Methane for New and Existing Landfills That Could Have Broader Implications for Climate Regulations Under the Clean Air Act

As part of the Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan and methane strategy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a package of rules on July 14, 2016, to reduce methane emissions at new and existing landfills. In a public statement, EPA noted that municipal solid waste landfills are the second-largest industrial source of methane emissions in the United States. EPA is regulating methane because it is considered a potent greenhouse gas (“GHG”). The rules, therefore, aim to cut methane (and other gases) from landfills by lowering the emissions threshold at which landfills must install pollution controls by roughly a third. By simultaneously regulating both new and existing sources under two provisions of the Clean Air Act, EPA may be testing a legal strategy that could have broader implications for other air regulations.

Drawing authority from the Clean Air Act, the rules require affected landfills to install a gas collection-and-control system within 30 months of reaching the new threshold of 34 metric tons of non-methane organic compounds per year. Under the rulemakings, existing, new, reconstructed and modified sources retain the current design capacity thresholds of 2.5 million metric tons and 2.5 million cubic meters, but the non-methane organic compounds emission threshold for the installation and removal of a gas collection-and-control system is reduced from 50 metric tons per year to 34 metric tons per year.

According to an EPA Fact Sheet on both actions, operators and owners may control the gas by (1) combusting the gas in an enclosed combustion device, such as a boiler, to generate energy, (2) routing it to a treatment system that processes the collected gas for sale or beneficial use, or (3) routing it to a non-enclosed flare.

These rules follow on the heels of an oil and gas methane rule that was finalized in May 2016. While the oil and gas rule is expected to reduce methane emissions by 510,000 short tons per year in 2025, the landfill rules are expected to reduce methane emissions by 334,000 metric tons per year in 2025. EPA estimates the landfill cuts to be worth $512 million in climate benefits in 2025. The EPA reached this figure by using a methodology known as the Social Cost of Methane, which places a present-dollar value on the reduction of each ton of methane emissions based on a projection of the future climate impacts of those emissions. For more about the Social Cost of Methane, please see this previous post.

Why does this rule matter?

For the existing landfill rule, EPA is updating the 1996 standards. This is the first time EPA has ever tried to revise a section 111(d) rule. Aside from the direct implications that these rules have for municipal solid waste landfills, the legal authority that EPA used to support these regulations could have broader implications for other climate change regulations, including the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Specifically, EPA simultaneously issued separate regulations for new and modified landfills under section 111(b) of the Clean Air Act, and regulations for existing landfills under section 111(d). Critics have argued that EPA cannot alter existing source standards under section 111(d). While section 111(b) requires EPA to “review and, if appropriate, revise such standards” for new sources every eight years, section 111(d) (for existing source standards) is silent as to whether EPA can update the standards after their initial issuance. Critics argue that this silence prevents EPA from updating existing source standards.

EPA disagrees, and stated on July 14, 2016, in the preamble to the Emission Guidelines and Compliance Times for Municipal Solid Waste Landfills final rule, that interpreting Clean Air Act section 111(d) “otherwise would mean that Congress intended to allow existing sources to operate forever without any consideration of the need for updated controls simply because, at some point in the distant past, the EPA had previously required these sources to be regulated.” EPA further asserted that its interpretation is consistent with the gap-filling nature of section 111(d), which it views as addressing emissions from existing sources that would otherwise not be covered by either the national ambient air quality standard or the hazardous air pollutant provisions. Critics counter that it makes sense for the EPA to only have authority to revise standards for new sources (as opposed to existing sources), asserting that section 111(d) was intended to authorize emission guidelines “only under very limited circumstances to ensure that existing sources . . . do not go uncontrolled.”

Those in the utility industry are concerned that if EPA has the legal authority under section 111(d) to change existing source standards, then EPA may later use this authority to strengthen the standards for CO2 emissions from power plants under the Clean Power Plan. 

The landfill rules will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

1 To reach both new and existing sources, EPA relied on separate provisions of the CAA. For new sources, EPA published performance standards under section 111(b). EPA generally delegates the implementation and enforcement of such performance standards to states, but retains the authority to enforce the standards directly if it finds the state program to be inadequate. For existing standards, the EPA published emission guidelines that will guide states in creating state plans that establish their own standards of performance. If the state fails to submit an adequate plan, EPA has the authority to prescribe a federal plan for that state.

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Kristen P. Miller

Kristen Miller Associate