Spokane pushes Legislature to exempt its trash incinerator from cap-and-trade program

OLYMPIA – The city of Spokane may soon have to pay Washington to comply with a new state program aimed at cutting greenhouse gases because of the city’s trash incinerator.

Under the state’s new cap-and-trade program, the Department of Ecology sets a cap on emissions every year for the state’s largest polluters. Those polluters can either clean up their work to meet the cap or purchase allowances from the state.

About 75% of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions are covered under the program, including those produced at Spokane’s Waste-to-Energy plant, which could cost the city anywhere from $2.5 to $8 million in additional costs each year when they enter the program in 2027

Spokane officials argue the incinerator is better for the environment than landfills and are asking lawmakers for an exemption, similar to the idea behind a bill that passed the Legislature last year that removed municipal landfills from the cap-and-trade program, also known as the Climate Commitment Act. But if no change is made, the city may rethink its solid waste management program.

“What we’re looking for as a city is a way to just have parity among the different disposal systems available in the state,” Spokane Public Works Director Marlene Feist said in an interview.

The city-owned Waste-to-Energy plant went online in 1991 as part of a regional system, and the city took over operations in 2014. It’s the only incinerator in the state that takes trash collected from residents’ curbs.

The plant takes solid waste, burns it at roughly 2,000 degrees and repurposes it as a form of electricity. It processes around 800 tons of solid waste a day and can generate enough electricity to power 13,000 homes, according to the city’s website.

The cost to manage the facility is partially offset by revenue generated from the electricity produced, but mostly through tipping fees from those who dispose there. Tipping fees are competitive with the solid waste management systems of “other similar sized areas and populations,” Spokane Solid Waste Director Chris Averyt said.

But burning waste also emits greenhouse gases. According to the state’s greenhouse gas reporting program, the facility had more than 234,000 metric tons of total emissions, including almost 89,000 of carbon dioxide alone. Any polluter that emits more than 25,000 metric tons must take part in the program.

Since the Legislature enacted the program in 2021, the city has been working to get an exemption but has yet to be successful.

Last year, a bill passed by the Legislature exempted municipal solid waste landfills from the cap-and-trade program because landfills’ methane emissions are already regulated through another program run by the state. Despite arguments from the city of Spokane, it did not exempt municipal waste-to-energy facilities as well.

In a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing last February, Feist said exempting landfills would have the unintended consequence of promoting landfill use over that of waste-to-energy facilities.

The facilities effectively do what the bill, which also required landfills to reduce methane emissions, what trying to do, Feist said.

Landfills produce methane, which Averyt said is far more impactful on the climate, at least in the short term. Waste-to-energy facilities, on the other hand, release carbon dioxide and reduce emissions inside the plant using air scrubbers.

Spokane’s facility also produces electricity, which, if produced somewhere else, would introduce emissions there, Averyt said.

“The current Climate Commitment Act only looks at direct emissions, it doesn’t look at emission avoidance,” Averyt said.

In a letter to the state Department of Ecology during its rule-making process for the program, the city asked to be treated similarly to landfills. In response, the Department of Ecology said the treatment of waste-to-energy facilities under the cap-and-trade program is set in statute by the Legislature, and Ecology’s rule couldn’t change that statute.

In the letter, the city also said if the facility remains under the cap-and-trade program, it could be forced to pass on any costs incurred to its customers, who may then choose to take their waste to a landfill.

“The bottom line: the proposed rule will force the City to make an inferior choice of either increasing the cost of waste disposal at the WTEF to comply with the proposed rule or closing the WTEF and opting for alternative waste disposal in landfills hundreds of miles away , resulting in greater long-term climate, environmental and social equity impacts,” the letter read.

Under the cap-and-trade program, utility companies get free allowances, which they can use to comply with the emissions standards. The city asked that the Department of Ecology also provide them free allowances, similar to those for utilities, because the waste-to-energy program provides electricity.

However, the city sells the electricity made from the facility to Avista, and the utility company would be the one to receive the free allowances, not the city, the Department of Ecology said in response.

This legislative session, the city is again trying to prove to the legislature that its program could be cleaner than landfills. They are hoping the Legislature will fund an emissions life-cycle analysis comparing landfills and waste-to-energy facilities, in an effort to show that the system used in Spokane is better for the environment.

If an analysis verifies that, the city would seek to be treated equally to landfills under the cap-and-trade program to allow for “a path of compliance that’s more affordable to our citizens,” Feist told The Spokesman-Review.

“We don’t think our community should have to pay an additional amount of money compared to every other disposal system in the state, because we’ve chosen something different,” Feist said. “And we want to be able to show how our choice is actually better from a climate change perspective than other choices that have been made.”

Council President Breean Beggs also has expressed broad concern about the removal of landfills from the cap-and-trade system, worried that would encourage the development of large new landfills.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said he has yet to see a bill to address the city’s concerns. But, he said, he could see how the current exemptions may put landfills at an advantage and it might make sense to exempt waste-to-energy facilities as well.

“I’m open to it, but I would want to see the bill,” he said.

No bill has been introduced to exempt these facilities yet this session, which runs through April 23.