Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Defining Offsets

Below is a story about the National Farmers Union's recent efforts to gin up visibility and support on Capitol Hill for offsets in the next climate bill. While I applaud their efforts for bringing needed focus to the offsets issue, it is dangerous to tie all of agriculture -- and the fate of offsets, to the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) model. That model does not contain the rigor in either project design or measurement that will be required under a mandatory climate market.

The danger of being too closely associated with the CCX is that all those groups who campaign against offsets -- saying they are not real, not measured, and just another subsidy for agriculture, have a much easier time of making their case if offsets are confused with CCX pilot program credits. They are NOT the same thing and it is HIGHLY unlikely that the CCX model of generating offsets will be recognized in the new law.

How can I say this? To my knowledge, there is not one major environmental group that supports the way CCX defines ag ghg reductions/offsets. Not even groups that are very supportive of the concept of ag offsets in a carbon market -- and have put a lot of their own political capital on the line, would be supportive of a system like this.

It will be extremely difficult for any member of Congress to push an offsets title that has zero environmental support.

But beyond the politics -- lets remember, CCX was designed to be a voluntary market -- and it has worked well for what it was designed to be. Once you move into mandatory reductions -- and a program that provides credits to pollute -- which is what an offset will be, we are in a whole new world with new challenges that must be addressed.

If lawmakers get the idea that offsets = CCX, the battle to get the maximum market for agriculture will be made that much harder.


Environment & Energy Daily

CLIMATE: Farmers try to raise visibility of offsets for next warming debate
Allison Winter, E&E Daily reporter0 - 7/30/2008

Farmers are already trying to plant seeds on Capitol Hill for the next climate debate, in an attempt to grow their share of any future cap-and-trade legislation.

The National Farmers Union and key farm state senators met on Capitol Hill yesterday to tout the farm group's partnership with the Chicago Climate Exchange. NFU is sending out checks this weeks to more than 2,300 farmers and ranchers that participate in its carbon credit program, capturing carbon dioxide in their soil in exchange for payments from the carbon market.

The farm lobby wants to highlight its program to lawmakers, in the hopes that agriculture might get more consideration the next time a climate bill comes around. "We want to say, 'Here's something that is working," said National Farmers Union President Tom Buis after a briefing with reporters.

The group was largely preoccupied with the farm bill prior to this year's climate debate, but they are ramping up their presence for the next round on climate legislation. They want to make sure U.S. farmers have a major role in any cap and trade system. And they want a bigger piece of the pie for offsets than the Lieberman-Warner bill would have given them.

Lieberman-Warner put a 15 percent limit on offsets -- the amount of carbon reductions industry can buy from landowners who plant trees, erect methane digesters or practice no-till farming. Lawmakers with a heavy interest in agriculture, such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), had an amendment that would have greatly increased the share available for domestic offsets.

Stabenow and Sens. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) all praised farmers' participation in carbon markets yesterday. Lugar is a carbon-trader himself. He planted black walnut trees on his Indiana farm to sequester an estimated 3,400 tons of carbon.

But Stabenow said agriculture continues to face a hurdle of proving that it can really reduce carbon. "The big debate is whether or not these are real offsets and can be measured," Stabenow said.

Some environmental groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, are skeptical of agricultural offsets. They say the long-term benefits of the offsets are dubious -- if a farmer decides later to till his 'no-till' plot, for instance, he can release much of the carbon he was previously paid to store.

The other major criticism is that offsets might not reduce the carbon in the atmosphere, especially if they are going to farmers who were already doing some of these practices on their land. NFU's program with the Chicago Climate Exchange does not pay farmers for any practice started prior to 1999, in an effort to address that criticism.

"I think there was this assumption, 'Well they're going to do it anyway,'" said Buis. "But if there isn't anything to encourage good behavior, they are going to have to incentivize it."

In addition to the farm lobby, Environmental Defense and other groups are big proponents of offsets as a way to promote conservation, reward private stewardship and reduce carbon. GOP presidential hopeful John McCain supports the use of unlimited domestic and international offset projects for industry compliance (E&ENews PM, May 12).

Offsets are also less expensive than forcing industry to cut its emissions on its own. U.S. EPA and Energy Information Administration studies have shown unlimited offsets could lower the climate program's costs by as much as 71 percent.

The National Farmers Union started its program two years ago. The group is an aggregator for carbon contracts to allow small landowners who would not qualify on their own for the climate exchange's 5,000 ton minimum. NFU identifies farmers who want to participate, enrolls them in the climate exchange and sells their offsets as a group.

Since it began in late 2006, the program has traded more than 86 million tons of carbon offsets and generated $8 million for producers. More than 2,000 farmers participate -- almost half of them in North Dakota, the first state where NFU started the program. Buis said interest continues to grow, mostly by word of mouth.

"What we find is after the checks go out the first year, people go to the coffee shop and tell their neighbors and it grows," Buis said. "We haven't put on a wild marketing program. This is mostly word of mouth."


Dan said...

Can you explain why CCX is different than a cap and trade program? Even if it is a voluntary market, if it is not effective, shouldn't it be opposed by environmental groups? If there are companies willing to pay for carbon offsets, wouldn't it be best if they paid for something that actually sequesters carbon? I don't understand how CCX has "worked well for what it was designed to be" yet be the completely wrong approach for a cap and trade program. Thanks.

Clay Pope said...

In Oklahoma we have a state verification system to help give more validity to agriculture carbon credits. If you use the state system, our Conservation Commission (or a local conservation district that has an agreement with the commission) sends someone out to verify that you have undertaken the pratice you are selling. This visual verification happens each year that the land is under contract. My concern is that any final federal climate change legislation will not allow land practices undertaken under a federal or state conservation incentive program or under other programs like clean water act sec. 319 to qualify as an offset. This would take millions of acres of land off the table as offsets and really punish those landowners who are trying to be good stewards of the earth. Hopefully that will not be the case.