Across Seattle, green garbage trucks have started to appear painted with the slogans “Breathe Clean, Seattle” and “Powered by renewable natural gas.” These claims puzzled residents and climate activists, who questioned whether these trucks were actually burning clean fuel.
Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) contracts out garbage and recycling collection to WM (formerly known as Waste Management), which owns the trucks. The company is one of the largest waste trucking companies in the country, operating a fleet of more than 32,000 vehicles as of 2018.
On Feb. 16, the environmental group GasLeaks released a media report claiming that WM’s trucks are engaged in “greenwashing” the gas industry, a term that refers to when organizations use deceptive marketing to imply that their products or policies are more environmentally friendly than they actually are. The advocacy group contends that not only do compressed gas vehicles still emit particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that have a demonstrable risk of contributing to health problems, but it is unlikely that the trucks themselves are running on biogas or “RNG.”
According to Seattle’s 2019–2029 contract with WM, the company’s vehicles run mainly on compressed methane gas, as well as a few pilot electric battery-powered vehicles. WM is required to use all- or near-zero emissions vehicles.
RNG is generally produced by capturing methane, which is emitted by microbes that feed off of garbage in landfills. Once it is processed, RNG is chemically identical to the methane gas that is fracked from the ground, so when it burns, it also releases carbon dioxide into the air, contributing to climate change. However, because RNG carbon is already in circulation throughout the ecosystem, proponents consider it carbon neutral. By converting the highly potent methane gas into carbon dioxide, burning RNG can be better for the climate than just letting the methane from landfills enter the atmosphere unabated.
In an email to Real Change, a WM spokesperson confirmed that methane gas powering Seattle’s garbage trucks comes directly from pipelines, which is overwhelmingly composed of fracked gas. However, using a crediting system regulated by the EPA, the company injects an equivalent amount of RNG into the pipeline system from landfills it operates or purchases from in Kentucky, Illinois, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
This “book-and-claim” system is used with renewable electricity such as wind and solar as well, the spokesperson said. They also said that the “breathe clean” language was meant to convey the company’s commitment to cleaner air and the fact that the Seattle trucks are outfitted with new Cummins Westport ISL G Near Zero engines, which are considered much cleaner than older models.
However, environmental groups are not convinced. Caleb Heeringa, the project director of GasLeaks, said that the slogans on the trucks were misleading because they make it seem like the gas they are burning is RNG.
“The ads themselves, if you read them, they [would] pretty clearly lead someone to believe that the trucks are literally, physically being powered by renewable natural gas,” Heeringa said. “And If that’s not true, then it’s really misleading to the public.”
Heeringa argued that RNG as a technology could never develop enough capacity to actually replace all the fracked gas being used today. Thus, it could do more harm than good by prolonging the use of fossil fuels as opposed to electrification efforts. Additionally, methane gas leaks are commonplace, making the fuel much dirtier than it may appear since it is such a potent greenhouse gas, he said. Instead, RNG should be burned on site and converted to electricity to reduce the risk of leakages.
“There’s a reason that Waste Management, in their sustainability report, a vast majority of their landfills that they collect methane from, they burn it right on site,” Heeringa said. “They turn it into electricity, either to power the facility itself or to sell the excess electricity to the grid, because that’s the most efficient way. When you put it into pipelines, and when you start to try to transport it around, number one, it leaks. Pipelines leak all the time. Even in your home, gas stoves leak even when they’re turned off.”
Together with other organizations such as Sierra Club and 350 Seattle, GasLeaks wrote letters to the Seattle City Council and Attorney General’s Office calling on them to investigate the issue.
WM is not the only company developing RNG in the region. Puget Sound Energy (PSE) launched a similar RNG initiative in 2020, purchasing methane gas that is collected at landfills, such as one in Klickitat County, and then injecting it into the pipeline system. The utility company then sells RNG “blocks” to customers for a higher price than fracked gas, using the same “book-and-claim” crediting system.
According to a PSE spokesperson, RNG accounts for just over 1 percent of the company’s total gas supply. About 5,000 households out of a total customer base of 900,000 have signed up for the RNG program, purchasing RNG to cover a portion of their gas usage.
On Feb. 6, the Port of Seattle announced that they would purchase RNG gas from PSE to heat the agency’s maritime division and economic development department buildings as a short-term step in the transition to clean energy. The Port claims this will reduce emissions for the buildings by 47 percent, since RNG gas is considered carbon neutral.
However, this calculation does not account for leakages. The EPA estimates that about 1.4 percent of methane gas leaks into the atmosphere between production and consumption. A growing body of research indicates that this could be a vast understatement, with one study suggesting that the rate is closer to 9 percent.
The decision to purchase RNG from PSE was to encourage cleaner energy production while also trying to transition away from gas entirely in the long term, Port Commissioner Ryan Calkins said.
“We are not building new natural gas infrastructure or facilities,” Calkins said. “We are finding a renewable source to power those things until we can grandfather them out with electrification or another renewable liquid fuel that wouldn’t have the same negative side effects of RNG.”
Calkins added that the Port is also funding research into hydrogen fuel and other potential clean energy sources. The bulk of the agency’s emissions don’t come from port facilities themselves but from fossil fuel-powered cargo ships and airplanes. Purchasing RNG and other short-term initiatives like installing electrical hookups for cruise ships so that they can connect to the energy grid while docking are part of a strategy to decarbonize the Port by 2040, Calkins said.
When trying to meet carbon reduction targets, RNG purchasing agreements can be helpful for agencies like the Port, since they can consider the methane they burn carbon neutral without replacing any infrastructure. Port officials said that the agency is in the process of replacing gas heating with electric heat pumps.
However, many climate activists don’t agree with the logic underlying RNG, saying that it ultimately greenwashes the gas industry.
“The climate crisis demands that we stop the build out of fracked gas infrastructure in all its forms, and so-called ‘renewable natural gas’ just helps the fossil fuel industry appear like they’re cleaning up their act while continuing to drill and frack for more methane gas,” wrote 350 Seattle Executive Director Shemona Moreno.
Heeringa said that if utility companies like PSE and WM are truly committed to decarbonization, they should opt for landfills to burn RNG onsite instead of augmenting fracked gas pipelines.
“Putting trivial amounts [of RNG] into the pipeline system and pretending that that’s somehow making the system greener — that’s just greenwashing,” he said. “It’s just perpetuating the expansion of the system.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Mar. 1-7, 2023 issue.