Several thousand miles from Paris, where global heads of state are deliberating on a new climate change treaty with the infamous terrorism backdrop looming, a crucial aspect of the global campaign to limit greenhouse gas emissions has been taking shape in the forests of California.
California is the first US state to inaugurate a cap-and-trade program, which allows polluters to cancel out their emissions by buying carbon emission reductions somewhere else under a commodities exchange program. A portion of those purchased credits, or offsets, comes from carbon sequestration in forests.
Under this oft-convoluted and easily gamed system, the buyers of the carbon dioxide that has been “offset” — manufacturers, power companies, and other sources of greenhouse gases — continue some of their emissions on the theory that the pollution will be balanced out by the preservation of CO2-consuming trees. In living practice, the program already involves big swaths of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties.
According to an analysis I conducted this past June, more than 40% of the carbon dioxide stored in the forests certified under this program — administered by the California Air Resources Board — was located in the two North Coast counties, where just over 50,200 acres are now governed under pledges to soak up carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted through industrial logging.
Now, the amount of Mendo forestland enrolled in the cap-and-trade program is poised to grow significantly. The county's largest private landowner, Mendocino Redwood Company, has submitted six separate forest carbon sequestration projects to the Climate Action Registry (CAR), a Los Angeles non-profit, the first of two major steps toward participation in California's first-of-its-kind cap-and-trade program.
The projects, which MRC submitted to the CAR in October, include 8,796 acres in the northwestern Navarro River watershed, 20,295 acres in the Hollow Tree Creek watershed outside of Westport, 8,659 acres in Greenwood Creek outside of Elk, 14,082 acres in the Garcia River near Point Arena, 13,489 acres in Elk Creek near Elk, and 13,480 acres of Albion.
In all, MRC is proposing to receive “carbon credits” on 78,801 acres, or more than one-third of its total land holdings — and more forestland than had been approved as part of "cap-and-trade" in all of California as of this past July. MRC would earn tens of millions of dollars if these projects were certified.
In an interview earlier this year, prior to development of these projects, MRC President Mike Jani told me his company had explored the possibility of earning money through carbon sequestration, but the price at which carbon was trading under the California system – about $12 a ton at the time – was too low to make it economically worthwhile. But MRC has since decided that participation in the cap-and-trade system will be financially advantageous after all.
The State of California does not certify the forests in its cap-and-trade program. Rather, it farms out that function to private companies, most notably SCS Global Services of Emeryville. SCS Global Services is one of two companies that historically has certified MRC and its sibling company, Humboldt Redwood Company, as sustainable timber companies under the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) label, which is roughly the timber industry equivalent to an organic agriculture certification. The other is the Rainforest Alliance — not to be confused with the Rainforest Action Network.
Unlike the organic food label, though, the FSC places few restrictions on the use of toxic chemicals. MRC widely uses Imazapyr, Garlon, and glyphosate (Round-Up).
According to documents I obtained via the California Public Records Act, the forester who developed MRC's cap-and-trade projects is Larry Wilson, whose company title is “forest inventory manager.” Prior to joining MRC, the experienced and well-connected Mr. Wilson was a forester for SCS Global Services specializing in certifications of forest cap-and-trade projects for the Air Resources Board.
In an e-mail earlier this year to Air Resources Board's Stephen Shelby, Wilson wrote, “Dear Stephen, I moved from one side of the carbon world to the other, and am now working for Mendocino/Humboldt Redwood Companies, on the project development side.”
If MRC's projects are approved by the Climate Action Registry, they must then be “converted” to the Air Resources Board's cap-and-trade system — a process that may take years. Other major timber companies, including Sierra Pacific Industries (owner of 1.5 million acres in California, the largest timberland owner in the US) and Green Diamond Resources Company, have also submitted projects to the Climate Action Reserve but have yet to gain approval for them as part of the cap-and-trade program.
MRC's attempts to earn cap-and-trade revenues on so much of its land raises the prospect that the company will earn money from the State of California based on its controversial practice of injecting tan oaks and other hardwood trees with herbicides as a step toward planting more merchantable softwood trees that ultimately sequester more carbon dioxide: redwoods and Douglas firs. Each of the project descriptions MRC submitted to the Climate Action Reserve mention that “the tanoak component” is “out of balance” on these lands.
According to environmentalists, the cap-and-trade program is fraught with problems, some of the most glaring of which are its provisions concerning forests. For example, cap and trade currently allows timber operators to generate carbon credits even when they clear-cut a forest, so long as the individual cut is no larger than 40 acres.
Others point out that the cap-and-trade system turns the future of life on the planet into a speculative game by commodifying carbon dioxide and other constituents of the air we breathe. This system works well for polluters, such as timber companies that make money through cap-and-trade, but its potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is dubious, at best.
I will publish a much more in-depth piece on California's cap-and-trade system, its importance as a global model, and the outsized influence that large manufacturing industries have exerted on it, and its impacts on forests, in a couple of weeks.