Carbon Sequestration: Robin Hoods of the Forest?

Fortnightly Magazine - August 1997

Appearing as tree huggers, utilities draw skeptical reaction from environmentalists.

At first glance, it looks like the same old story: Environmentalists versus utilities. But this time, the utilities are the ones fighting for the forests (em with a twist.

Utilities, major producers of carbon dioxide, believe they've found a cost-effective way to offset emissions through carbon sequestration, or sinks, which means converting pastures to forests or maintaining old-growth groves.

But environmentalists call it an easy way out. They say forest sinks only avoid the real issue (em installing control technologies at power plant sites to reduce emissions. Besides other faults, they say it's difficult to predict how much C02 can be stored in a forest sink and nearly impossible to prove. Carbon dioxide generally is accepted as the primary source of global warming.

"This is a red herring ... it isn't really a solution to the problem," says Steve Pedery of the Sierra Club. "In general, it's just an incredibly hard thing to enforce and police."

Proponents admit that there are flaws to the idea, yet maintain that utilities are exploring every option to mitigate the harmful effects of carbon dioxide. "There's no way that utilities are going to make this their sole way of dealing with CO2," says John Kinsman, manager, atmospheric science at the Edison Electric Institute. The EEI helped form and now manages UtiliTree Carbon Co., a nonprofit organization of 40 electric companies. "It's a small piece of the pie. ... No one is going to take this practice and ignore emissions."

Measurement and benefit issues, however, will be debated until December when in Kyoto, Japan, State Department negotiators include mandatory sequestration proposals in the U.S. protocol. Global treaties now include sequestration as a voluntary measure.

The Numbers

Studies can show how fast trees grow on different soils. As a rule of thumb, for every cubic foot of wood that grows, 35 pounds of carbon are stored, which translates into one to two tons of carbon per forested acre per year, according to Neil Sampson of The Sampson Group Inc., a consulting firm which has helped utilities set up sinks.

According to the Energy Information Administration, a single coal plant in the U.S. released an average of 4.3 million tons of CO2 in 1995, assuming 100-percent combustion. About 1.8 billion tons of CO2 were released that year.

Sampson admits the link between atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate has not clearly been established. "But, we know pretty well how to measure the flows of carbon from the atmosphere into trees. Can we show them how to offset CO2? The answer is yes ... we can build the numbers for these. Can we build them with 100 percent certainty? No."

Carbon sinks can be modeled within a 10-percent error margin, he says. Although he does admit they make a small contribution to the international emissions picture. But there are only two choices, he says: either spend billions on huge projects (em which typically fail because they are too far-reaching (em or make a million small contributions that require modest investments.

Sampson says utilities are investing considerable sums to offset emissions through forest sinks, which proves that they are taking it seriously.

Environmentalists generally are proponents of more federal regulation (em which pits them against industry, he says. Political agendas often aren't about the environment (em they're about regulation, Sampson says. What they don't want is a quick and easy answer, he adds.

International Picture

Several companies have looked to developing countries for sequestration projects. Besides enhancing the global picture, such projects can be more cost-effective than similar U.S. programs. But opponents argue that forest set-asides in foreign nations are precarious, due to a lack of control, particularly in developing countries, and are not as easily monitored. These countries typically have different land laws than the U.S., and the permanency of a project might be questionable.

So while Pedery acknowledges there have been some good efforts to offset emissions through sinks in the U.S., the real problem Sierra Club has is with the push in developing countries. Domestically, the Sierra Club doesn't have an official position (em "As long as it's a real concrete plan."

John Novak of the Edison Electric Institute says a lot of political problems are associated with foreign forest acquisition. "The U.S. goes into another country, buys up land and says, 'You can't use this for the next 100 years.' That's a little bit much. Sure, there are significant issues here that need to be resolved."

He still insists, however, that the projects should be encouraged, because if a country and its companies have to meet a CO2 emissions cap, these options are low-cost compared with others. Analysis shows that to meet 1990 emissions levels in 2010, a $100 per ton of carbon equivalent tax would have to be levied; carbon sinks cost $5 to $10 per ton, he says.

It isn't common practice, however, for a utility to actually purchase the land targeted for a set-aside. Often, an environmental easement is negotiated, in which the landowner is paid to maintain the land as forested and continues to hold title.

An early project, the Rio Bravo Carbon Sequestration Project, involved Wisconsin Electric Power Co., Cinergy Corp., Detroit Edison Co., and PacifiCorp. The utilities, along with UtiliTree, The Nature Conservancy and Programme for Belize, jointly purchased 14,400 acres of forest and continues to manage a total of 120,000 acres in Rio Bravo, Belize.

One of the most recent international sequestration projects took place in Bolivia, the largest such project undertaken to date, setting aside 5 million acres of endangered tropical forest. American Electric Power, The Nature Conservancy, and Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza joined to form the Noel Kempff Mercado Climate Action Project, responsible for the set-aside. Noel Kempff could absorb up to 53.2 million metric tons of CO2 over the 30-year life of the project.

While the acreage was declared a national park, its future beyond 30 years isn't clear, according to Pat D. Hemlep, AEP spokesman. "The fact that this has been declared a park goes a long way," he says. AEP expects discussions on the land's future to resume near the project's end.

With the possibility of policy changes on the horizon, UtiliTree is holding off on developing any new projects, particularly outside the U.S. The international picture is "very uncertain right now," says Kinsman. "The organization is waiting to see how global policy falls out and how the U.S. responds before making any new moves."

Peaked Trees

Once a tree reaches peak maturity, its ability to absorb CO2 begins to decline. Eventually, CO2 absorption will fall to minimal levels, a figure that varies depending upon several factors. Pedery points out that it is unlikely a utility will shut down its plant when the forest sink that offsets CO2 emissions no longer can absorb additional quantities.

Environmentalists also fear that once a utility sets aside a piece of land for planting or management, it will forget about it, which can prove especially damaging for newly planted groves. Other unexpected factors can affect a carbon sink's success as well. "With forests, you're talking about at least a thirty-year period before they absorb their set about of carbon," Pedery explains, "And in that time, a lot can happen. It can be burned down; it can be cut down; it can be wiped out by a hurricane."

Pedery also debunked the value of planting new forests, which take several years to make a significant contribution in CO2 absorption. For the first 10 years or so, trees do not grow a great deal. After the first 10 to 20 years, however, rapid growth allows for a quick increase in carbon absorption. Older forests aging from 80 to 100 years absorb 2 to 3 times more CO2 than young trees. "What you do today is more important than what you do 30, 40, 50 years down the road," he says.

CO2 stays in the atmosphere for about 100 years.

Elizabeth Striano is managing editor of PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY.


Articles found on this page are available to Internet subscribers only. For more information about obtaining a username and password, please call our Customer Service Department at 1-800-368-5001.