Tontitown update: interview with ADEQ

We’re nearing the conclusion of our data-gathering for the additionality review. The report should be in the hands of our review panel by the end of this week.

We had an opportunity last week to interview the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. These folks are the source of the most serious charges in the BusinessWeek article. To recap, ADEQ contends in the article that the methane flaring system was installed at Tontitown to address a groundwater contamination problem, calling into question whether offsets played a role in development of the project.

The ADEQ interview was the most important remaining step in our review process. Our interview notes, along with the interview notes from our previous conversation with Waste Management, are available on the project review web site. There is a regrettable he-said/she-said quality to some aspects of this issue, but that is something the review board will have to sort through.

I’m not going to get too deeply into the specifics of the interviews here, as they don’t lend themselves to easy summary. I do want to draw out some higher level points, though.

The first is that everyone has been helpful and forthright throughout this entire process. Although the BusinessWeek article may have given the impression of startling accusations and revelations, in fact the people involved in the project are engineers who are more than happy to chat about the ins and outs of landfill methane, and are loathe to make assertions that they can’t back up with prior experience or solid data.

The second is that the BusinessWeek article is increasingly coming across one-sided. Not because the article failed to uncover a real issue, but because it largely ignored the ambiguities surrounding its major claims. At this point, the situation basically boils down to four facts and one contention.

The facts, in chronological order:

  1. Waste Management’s initial work on a methane flaring system was voluntary.
  2. ADEQ placed Waste Management under a “corrective action” to compel them to fix a groundwater contamination problem.
  3. The methane flaring system was fully implemented after the corrective action was issued.
  4. The methane flaring system fixed the groundwater issue and also allowed Waste Management to generate carbon credits for sale on the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Based on our conversations with everyone involved, no one disputes these facts or this essential timeline. At issue is this single contention:

According to Waste Management, the methane flaring system represents an investment that goes significantly above and beyond what was necessary to address the groundwater problem. Because the project voluntarily exceeds the requirements of the corrective action, it is a legitimate source of carbon credits.

It is up to our expert panel to judge the merit of this contention. But here’s what ADEQ’s Gerald Delevan (the source of the BusinessWeek quotes) had to say about it:

Whether [Waste Management] went above and beyond what they needed to do, I don’t have the first clue…I know that the system they installed addressed the groundwater problem. Whether it went over and above that, I don’t think there’s anyone here that knows that. That’s not something we evaluate. Whether they went the extra mile, I don’t know.

I can’t stress strongly enough that this is not a “gotcha” or smoking gun. Delevan was being up front about the fact that he’s never been asked to evaluate whether the project went above and beyond requirements. Assessing additionality is not in ADEQ’s purview.

Which leaves us wondering why the BusinessWeek piece didn’t present a more nuanced view of the questions it raised, or at least bother to ask a credible outside authority about the allegations. Water under the bridge at this point. The final report should be available shortly.

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  1. Bob M - April 4, 2007

    If the are using the methane to generate electricity from a capstone microturbine, then that would be going beyond what is required. I am not clear as to what they are doing now when they say flaring. I assume that means just burning it off.

  2. Matthew Owens - April 4, 2007

    The newsletter says Arizona Dept of Environmental quality, but here it says Arkansas DEQ. Which one is it?

  3. Adam Stein - April 4, 2007

    Bob — flaring just means burning it off.
    Matthew — it’s Arkansas. I fixed it in the blog post after sending out the newsletter. I seem to have some sort of brain lapse that causes me to keep typing Arizona when I mean Arkansas. I think it has something to do with the fact that the Arkansas postal abbreviation is AR, for what it’s worth.

  4. Anonymous - April 4, 2007

    I agree with Bob. Why don’t you work with Waste Management to install a microturbine, which would generate electricity and result in the methane from Tontitown being used productively rather than just being burned off and wasted?

  5. Adam Stein - April 4, 2007

    Waste Management has set up microturbines at other sites, and they chose not to at this site. We can only assume that a microturbine didn’t make sense. We agree that in general microturbines are a great idea, but second-guessing this engineering decision is really far out of our realm of expertise. Just to be clear, though, the presence of microturbine does not affect either the amount or the quality of the carbon offsets generated.

  6. Anonymous - April 4, 2007

    This whole flaring project has me a bit confused about how carbon offsets work. It seems like whether or not the methane is burned (or burned and then run through a microturbine for that matter), exactly the same amount of carbon goes into the atmosphere, it’s just CO2 instead of CH4. So actually no literal carbon is offset. I do understand though that CH4 is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 and so the project does have a net benefit. So is the “carbon” in the offset assigned different value depending on what form it’s in? In other words, are you actually purchasing “climate change offsets” rather than carbon offsets?

  7. Adam Stein - April 4, 2007

    Anon — you’re not as confused as you think! Generally greenhouse gases are translated into an amount of CO2 with equivalent global warming potential, for easy comparison. Sometimes you see the word CO2e, which stands for CO2 equivalent.
    Methane has about 22 times the global warming potential of CO2. So when we buy one ton of carbon offsets from a landfill flaring project, we’re really buying one ton of CO2e reductions.

  8. Aaron A. - April 4, 2007

    Anon & Adam:
    I’m rather intrigued by this as well. When a landfill burns methane, they convert it to an equal amount of CO2 (plus 2H2O, I believe*). We’ve established that. So when we, through TerraPass, pay for 1 ton of C02e reductions, what we actually get is combustion of about 100 pounds** of methane. Am I on the right track here?

    * Despite the allure of burning stuff in the name of science, I never really into chemistry.
    ** 2,200 lbs C02 / difference in GWP (23 – 1) = 100 lbs of methane

  9. Anonymous - April 4, 2007

    “the presence of microturbine does not affect either the amount or the quality of the carbon offsets generated.”

    It might, though, if the methane being burned is used to generate power that could preclude some other greenhouse gas-emitting power source somewhere else.

  10. Adam Stein - April 4, 2007

    Anon —
    A microturbine could be used to generate RECs from renewable energy production on top of the carbon offsets. But it still wouldn’t affect the amount of quality of offsets generated from the methane flaring.
    Aaron —
    You’re right. The exact conversion factor is probably a bit different (I don’t know it off the top of my head), but that’s the idea.

  11. Anonymous - April 4, 2007

    I am also confused… How is the carbon “offset” if it still goes into the atmosphere as CO2 instead of CH4? It seems to me like it is six one way and a half-dozen the other. Please explain to someone who got a C- in chem…

  12. Adam Stein - April 4, 2007

    In a nutshell: the carbon from landfills is part of the natural carbon cycle. It comes from rotting refuse, not from fossil fuels. This type of decomposition doesn’t add any net carbon to the atmosphere — plants will reabsorb it, and the cycle continues.
    Methane, on the other hand, is a much nastier greenhouse gas. Destroying it ensure that it doesn’t enter the atmosphere.

  13. Anonymous - April 7, 2007

    Do you factor in the longevitiy of the GHG in the atmosphere? I think that CH4 lasts for 10-20 years while the more chemically stable CO2 lasts for 200-300. Despite CH4 being a more intense heat-trapping gas, in the long run it might not be as much of a problem. Just wondering how the accounting works on that point.