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Value of U.S. House's carbon offsets is murky

Some observers are questioning the effectiveness of the U.S. House's $89,000 purchase to balance out greenhouse-gas emissions.
Image: jar of switchgrass
Chariton Valley Biomass Project manager Bill Belden holds a jar of switch grass that is burned to make electricity at the Alliant Energy Co. power plant in Chillicothe, Iowa, in May 2006.Charlie Neibergall / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The House of Representatives has presumably learned that money cannot buy love or happiness. Now, it turns out it's not a sure solution to climate guilt, either.

In November, the Democratic-led House spent about $89,000 on so-called carbon offsets. This purchase was supposed to cancel out greenhouse-gas emissions from House buildings -- including half of the U.S. Capitol -- by triggering an equal reduction in emissions elsewhere.

Some of the money went to farmers in North Dakota, for tilling practices that keep carbon buried in the soil. But some farmers were already doing this, for other reasons, before the House paid a cent.

Other funds went to Iowa, where a power plant had been temporarily rejiggered to burn more cleanly. But that test project had ended more than a year before the money arrived.

The House's purchase provides a view into the confusing world of carbon offsets, a newly popular commodity with few rules. Analysts say some offsets really do cause new reductions in pollution. But others seem to change very little.

'Waste of taxpayer money'?
To environmentalists, the House's experience is a powerful lesson about a market where pure intentions can produce murky results.

"It didn't change much behavior that wasn't going to happen anyway," said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes a blog calling for more aggressive action on climate change. "It just, I think, demonstrated why offsets are controversial and possibly pointless. . . . This is a waste of taxpayer money."

The House bought its offsets through the Chicago Climate Exchange, a five-year-old commodities market where greenhouse-gas credits are traded like pork bellies.

This month, officials at the exchange vigorously defended the sale, saying the House's money had done a great deal of good by funneling money to those who were helping to combat climate change.

"It basically rewards people for having done things that had environmental good in the past and incentivizes people to do things that have environmental good in the future," said Richard Sandor, the exchange's chairman and chief executive.

He rejected the argument that the exchange shouldn't sell offsets until it can prove that the pollution reductions wouldn't have happened if the money wasn't paid. "We can't, as an exchange, trade hypothetical things," Sandor said.

The offset purchase was part of a Green the Capitol initiative, begun after Democrats took over last year. House leaders bought compact fluorescent light bulbs to save energy and ordered the Capitol Power Plant to burn natural gas instead of dirtier coal. For emissions they couldn't avoid, they bought offsets: 30,000 metric tons at about $2.97 per metric ton.

The Senate has taken some similar steps to reduce energy use but has not purchased offsets.

Daniel P. Beard, the House's chief administrative officer, said he asked the Chicago exchange for offsets based only on U.S. projects. But, he said, he asked not to be told where the projects were, so representatives could not buttonhole him about projects in their districts.

The carbon offset market has taken off in the United States-- worth an estimated $55 million, according to a study last year -- despite its odd-sounding premise. Its stock in trade is, in essence, a claim that some pollution might have been emitted but wasn't.

In Europe, offsets are regulated and often expensive, more than $30 per metric ton. In the United States, offsets are hardly regulated at all and generally far cheaper.

Many environmental groups say any offset must meet one all-important criterion, called "additionality": Buying an offset must cause some new reduction in emissions, which wouldn't have happened if the money hadn't been paid.

"If you don't have additionality," said Mark Trexler, a consultant in Portland, Ore., who advises companies on offset purchases, "you know what you're getting. You're getting nothing."

A review of three projects that got about a third of the funds from the House's offset purchases shows that, in all three cases, it did not appear that offset money was the sole factor causing any of the projects to go forward.

About $14,500 of the House's money went to the North Dakota Farmers Union, some to pay farmers to do "no-till" farming. The farmers stopped using conventional plows and instead make tiny slits to plant their seeds. The practice increases the amount of carbon, a component in heat-trapping carbon dioxide, kept in the soil. But organizers said that some farmers had started the practice before the offset money came in because it saves fuel, brings in federal soil-conservation funds and could increase crop yields.

"When we first started, the financial incentive was trying to raise better crops . . . and that's still the biggest incentive," said Mark Holkup, who raises wheat and sunflowers in Wilton, N.D. He said, however, that the contract for his offsets would prevent him from abandoning this practice in the near future.

‘A big, red flag’
That's a troubling sign, according to Wiley Barbour, director of Environmental Resources Trust in Arlington County, which evaluates the worth of potential carbon offsets.

"If they say, 'Well, they were already doing no-till,' then immediately that raises a big, red flag," Barbour said. "Nothing changed."

Another $14,500 went to a project that enabled a power plant near Chillicothe, Iowa, to burn switch grass instead of coal. This was a test program, to learn more about making power from plant matter, and it reduced the facility's emissions for 45 days in spring 2006. Officials conducted the test with the expectation that they would get offset money.

Would it have happened in the absence of such funds?

"I don't know," said David Miller, of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, who helped broker the deal.

About $1,400 went to the Nez Perce Indian tribe to pay for tree plantings on tribal land in northern Idaho. Trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow.

An official involved said that offset money was welcome in this case but was not the only factor that made the project worthwhile.

"No one is changing any practices for carbon offsets right now, because it doesn't make economic sense" with prices so low, said Ted Dodge, executive director of the National Carbon Offset Coalition, based in Butte, Mont., which handled the transaction.

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) said this month that he was concerned about the real impact of the House's offset purchase.

"This is just extra money in their pocket for something they're already doing," Ehlers said. A member of the House committee that oversees Beard's office, Ehlers said he wanted the money spent on energy-efficiency measures on Capitol Hill.

But Beard said he did not regret the purchase, despite questions about the role that offset money played in the individual projects.

"Whether they were going to do it or not" without the House funds, "the point is that they did do it."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.