Climate Advocates: Whitmer Administration Must Embrace Opportunity to Require Reductions in Landfill Methane

Despite shortcomings, new clean energy standard presents an opening for Michigan’s environmental agency to reign in harmful emissions from landfills

Lansing, MI – Today, Governor Whitmer is expected to sign Senate Bill 271 into law, as part of a suite of clean energy bills passed by the legislature earlier this month. SB 271 aims to update the state’s clean energy standard and accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. According to several environmental advocacy groups, it also provides a unique opportunity for the Whitmer Administration to dramatically reduce potent methane emissions from landfills.

The bill’s inclusion of landfill gas recovery and electricity generation facilities as a renewable energy source has been criticized by advocates as being risky and polluting. That said, vital language in the final bill text mandates that landfill operators employ “best practices for methane gas collection and control,” as determined by Michigan’s department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). This language allows EGLE to set the standard for how methane is collected, detected and mitigated at landfills that collect gas for energy.

“Michigan is ranked 6th highest in the whole country in landfill methane emissions. SB 271 puts the ball firmly in EGLE’s court to take action to improve this terrible ranking,” says Michael Garfield, Director of the Ecology Center. “We urge EGLE to develop best practices that ensure landfill operators deploy effective methane collection and detection practices. The Whitmer Administration has demonstrated a willingness to implement data-informed, community-centered climate solutions. They must continue to do so now.”

Landfills are the third highest source of methane nationally and Michigan is ranked 6th in the country in highest estimated methane emissions from landfills, according to 2021 data reported to the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. In Michigan, more than 90 percent of industrial methane emissions come from municipal solid waste landfills; the 20-year warming potential is roughly equivalent to 3 million cars driven for a year. Addressing methane emissions from landfills is one of the most effective ways to slow the pace of global warming in the short term. The Maryland Department of the Environment recently estimated that their updated landfill emissions standards would result in 25-50% reduction in methane emissions, demonstrating the dramatic emissions reduction potential of state-level regulation. Landfills also create many hazards for surrounding communities, including the potential for toxic leachate into groundwater, other potent air pollutants, and quality of life impacts such as noise and odors.

“We know that stronger landfill emissions rules work, because we’re seeing them work in states like Oregon and Maryland right now,” says Christy McGillivray, political and legislative director at Sierra Club Michigan. “Michigan has an opportunity to emerge as national leader on cutting state methane emissions, but only if EGLE rises to the occasion.”

With global climate conference COP28 kicking off this week, state policymakers and organizations are also looking to leaders to tighten methane emission regulations at the federal level. In October, more than 50 local elected officials from across the country — including Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor — released a letter urging EPA Administrator Regan to update existing landfill standards, that Michigan landfills must follow, to better prevent, detect, and mitigate methane leaks from landfills. Currently, landfill operators that operate landfill gas to energy systems are not required by the United States EPA to adhere to EPA-identified best practices for reducing greenhouse gas emissions at landfills that operate RNG systems.

“Curbing methane emissions at the scale needed will require swift action and cooperation at the local, state, and federal levels,” says Katherine Blauvelt, circular economy director at Industrious Labs. “Strengthening landfill methane emissions reduction practices is the simplest, clearest way that the Whitmer Administration can make an immediate impact in dramatically reducing methane emissions across the state and meeting Michigan’s climate goals. SB 217 clears a path for EGLE to make that happen.”