June 12, 2009

California's showdown over waste feedstocks

A showdown is looming in the California State Senate this summer over an issue that is at the heart of the nationwide drive to develop and deploy bioenergy conversion technologies.

In a state that prides itself on its landmark achievements in outlining Global Warming Solutions (AB 32), Bioenergy Action plans, and Low Carbon Fuel Standards, access to some of the most sustainable feedstocks for conversion to bioenergy is currently blocked by inexact statutory language and permitting regulations. As a result, municipalities and utilities are frustrated in their ability to exercise local authority over how they meet stringent waste diversion goals to reduce reliance on landfills for dumping post-recycled waste.

Post-recycled municipal solid waste is considered to be the most sustainable feedstock for biomass conversion into biofuels and biopower because, unconverted, this waste emits greenhouse gases while it decomposes. It is the only feedstock that has "negative" cost - receiving facilities receive per ton "tipping fees" that vary from region to region. Socially, it could provide good urban jobs that cannot be off-shored.

At the rate that municipal landfills are filling up and closing down, there is no time to wait. The state's largest landfill in Puente Hills, which services Los Angeles County, is scheduled to close in 2013. MSW currently disposed of there will instead be sent by train to a landfill 200 miles away!

Legendary former California State Senator (President Pro Tem) David Roberti and his Bioenergy Producers Association (BPA) is working overtime this month lining up support for passage of the bipartisan California Assembly Bill 222. With over 60 organizations supporting it (including municipalities, utilities, labor organizations, waste disposal facilities, and others) the bill was unanimously approved by the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee on April 27, 2009, and passed the State Assembly by a vote o 54-13 on Monday, June 1st. The Senate is expected to be a much more challenging battleground where, without support, the act might not get out of committee.

AB 222 proposes to update the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989. It is one of those seemingly innocuous pieces of legislation that only a policy wonk could love, but it is extremely important because without its passage municipalities will continue to find it virtually impossible to permit and fund deployment of municipal solid waste conversion technologies around the state. In a Catch-22 they are penalized for not deploying solutions that achieve minimum state diversion targets..

If passed, deployment of such facilities could divert approximately 30 million tons of post-recyclables from landfills while producing biopower and biofuels in accord with state (AB 32) and national initiatives (EISA, the Farm Bill, and pending Waxman/Markey cap and trade bill) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The strongest opposition to the legislation is being coordinated by Californians Against Waste (CAW). They see the bill as a threat to their sizable influence over waste streams in California. The BPA acknowledges the contributions that CAW has made to reducing, reusing, and recycling MSW in the state but dispute the contention that this measure will set recycling back. Instead, they emphatically assert it will help expand recycling in the state.

To point out other discrepancies, BPA is currently distributing a document titled CAW Misrepresents Renewable Energy Bill (AB 222) throughout Sacramento itemizing CAW's objections ("myths") and countering them with the facts at the foundation of AB 222 as written. The document charges that "Californians Against Waste has repeatedly attempted to discredit or thwart legislative and regulatory initiatives that would make possible the production of advanced biofuels and green power from these resources."

At a common sense level, if society can't even agree that post-recyclables are qualified feedstock for conversion to alternative forms of energy then the likelihood of other feedstocks being qualified is virtually nil. It is time for legislators to put more authority back in the hands of municipal governments to meet their diversion goals and to determine what is and what is not safe and sustainable. Public and private industries will always have to meet stringent standards on emissions and pollution for any solutions they deploy.

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