Maine Approves “Renewable” Gas Facility Without Considering the Climate or Community

The new facility will turn methane gas leaked from the Juniper Ridge landfill into energy, but it’s really just a way for the fossil fuel and waste industries to maintain the status quo.

A worker monitors landfill gas

Converting landfill gas into gas for heating harms our communities and our environment. Above: A landfill employee measures methane gas produced on site. Photo: Joe Souza via Shutterstock

All landfills eventually leak toxins into our air and water. And gas harms our planet and our health. So the idea of constructing and operating a so-called “renewable” natural gas facility at a landfill looms especially large as an environmental failure. Yet that’s just what Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection has authorized at the state-owned Juniper Ridge landfill in Alton.

The facility will take gas emitted by the landfill and process it for sale through Maine’s gas pipelines. The Department approved the new facility without any consideration of the impacts it would have on local communities or the climate.

While selling converted landfill gas as natural gas for heating might sound like a good idea (and the gas companies will surely tell you it is!), it’s really greenwashing at its best – especially because “renewable” natural gas is just as polluting as “regular” natural gas.

Let’s break down the problems with this decision further.

Landfills Harm Our Health, Environment, and Climate

Before we even get to gas, let’s talk about landfills.

Landfills (and waste incinerators) threaten our health and communities. They are full of toxins that contaminate our air, soil, and groundwater. They create noise, dust, traffic, and litter. They smell terrible, often driving away other businesses and devaluing local homes. Is it any surprise, then, that they are often located in communities least equipped to oppose their construction and expansion – and most vulnerable to their detrimental impacts?

Landfills also damage our climate. As bacteria break down organic solid wastes, they produce a lot of climate-damaging emissions. Landfill gas is approximately half methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat more effectively than carbon dioxide, making it even worse for the planet. Nationwide, landfills are among the largest sources of climate-damaging methane. And carbon dioxide makes up most of the remaining gases.

So to avoid the worst impacts of climate disruption, tackling emissions from dumps has to be part of the solution.

Maine Law Agrees that Landfills are Terrible and Toxic

You don’t need to take my word for it. Maine law says landfills are the worst option for dealing with trash and should be the last resort. State regulators have a hierarchy for how to deal with solid waste, and it puts landfilling squarely at the bottom – after reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting. The Department should have considered that hierarchy before approving a polluting gas plant at the Juniper Ridge landfill.

Instead, the gas plant incentivizes landfilling. That’s because it will create a new revenue stream for Juniper Ridge, one that depends on having a steady flow of gas available to sell. Why would waste managers reduce or divert waste from the landfill if it creates a profitable byproduct?

Beware of Fossil Fuel Greenwashing

Maine law also directs the Department of Environmental Protection to ensure the state cuts its carbon pollution by at least 2030. Given the climate-damaging emissions generated by landfills, you would expect the Department to analyze climate impacts in any licensing related to a waste facility. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

That’s especially problematic in this case because the gas plant will create and sell so-called “renewable” natural gas. Make no mistake: “renewable” natural gas is methane. And burning and leaking methane in any form creates just as much climate-damaging pollution inside and outside our homes as other gas. In short, any investment in burning fossil fuels to heat our buildings and cook our food – no matter what those fossil fuels are derived from – stands at odds with Maine’s climate law and should be scrutinized accordingly.

In fact, Maine’s climate law requires that we break our dependence on gas by converting to electric heat pumps. Again, don’t take it from me – look at the state’s climate action plan. One of its key action points emphasizes the widespread transition to heating our buildings with electricity instead of oil or gas. The state’s aggressive pursuit of this transition is already well underway.

Allowing private entities – or in this case, state government itself – to plow ahead with gas projects in 2022 is taking a huge step in the wrong direction. Every dollar spent on gas systems today invests in a dirty and entrenched fossil fuel future. These gas projects will stick around, often for decades to come, well after we need to end our reliance on burning these fuels.

The Department failed to ask how this proposal to process gas and sell it for combustion in homes and businesses is consistent with the state’s push to electrify. As long as the Department approves gas and landfill projects without considering their climate impacts, it is not doing its job of making sure the state cuts its climate pollution.

Rubber-stamping Gas Projects Harms Maine’s Most Vulnerable Communities

What’s more, this facility could harm Maine’s vulnerable and marginalized communities in multiple ways, but the Department didn’t consider any of them.

Like all landfills, Juniper Ridge already threatens the health of its neighbors, including the Penobscot Nation, through its daily operations. Creating sellable methane gas could add to that burden by releasing more toxic pollution that will harm their health and the environment. 

Allowing the expansion of gas infrastructure creates an additional problem. As noted above, we need to electrify how we heat our buildings to meet Maine’s climate law mandate. Companies that plow ahead with costly gas-related investments now will soon find themselves with a shrinking customer base and obsolete infrastructure. That’s because more and more people will be switching to electric heat options. Maine’s low-income households will be most challenged to change their heating systems. They may be left shouldering the hefty costs of utilities’ misguided investments through increasing gas bills.

In sum, those least equipped to switch out their heating systems will wind up paying the most.

Maine Made the Wrong Call. We Can’t Let Other States Do the Same

Maine can’t regulate landfills and gas projects without grappling with the harm these facilities do to communities and the climate.

We also can’t afford for other New England states to follow Maine’s misguided lead. Every state has polluting landfills – facilities they should be working to shut down, not encouraging to take on even more waste. And five out of six states have climate laws like Maine’s on the books – laws requiring we get real about getting off fossil fuels, now. That includes natural gas in all forms, “renewable” or not.

Here in Maine, we’ll keep pushing the Mills administration to address these issues in its second term. And across New England, we’ll be working to make sure we turn these ambitious climate laws into meaningful action.

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