California regulators reach crossroads on farming offsets

Published 23:49 on June 18, 2015  /  Last updated at 23:58 on June 18, 2015  /  Americas, US  /  No Comments

California regulators will next week decide whether to approve offsets from rice growing projects in a move experts say could pave the way for a wave of other agriculture initiatives to be allowed under the state’s cap-and-trade program.

California regulators will next week decide whether to approve offsets from rice growing projects in a move experts say could pave the way for a wave of other agriculture initiatives to be allowed under the state’s cap-and-trade program.

While modest in scope due to the relatively small amount of US farmland committed to rice cultivation, the rice protocol up for a vote by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) on June 25 will likely set a precedent for the design and approval of other crop-based protocols.

Such an expansion would enable offset developers to eventually seek to tap emissions reductions from nearly 100 million acres (40m hectares) of agricultural land in the US.

“This is a steppingstone to further protocols, like the fertilizer protocol,” said Robert Parkhurst of green group Environmental Defense Fund. “You could put in place an umbrella protocol that could cover other crops.”

EDF has been a key proponent of the protocol, which seeks to produce offsets by financially rewarding rice growers who change their farming practices to reduce methane emissions. If approved it will allow offsets to be generated from the US’s main rice-growing regions of California and the mid-South.

Parkhurst said it was difficult to provide an estimate of the number of offsets that would actually be generated under the protocol, but pointed to the fact that 2.5 million acres of fields yielding half-a-million tons of emissions reduction per acre translates into the potential for over a million tons worth of offsets.

California has approved eight offset protocols to date and issued just under 20 million credits.

“Risks to the farmers are minimal,” said Parkhurst. “We make sure the reductions are verifiable, and we’ve demonstrated it maintains their yield.”

While offset market participants are encouraged by the prospect of having a new protocol at their disposal, they maintain some reservations about some details.

“My concerns are in the technicalities of the protocol,” said Peter Weisberg, program manager for The Climate Trust, a Portland, Oregon-based offset developer.

“ARB is requiring that every field be verified, and if it has taken on that pressure, then [development under the protocol] will be too expensive.”

At issue for some developers, according to Weisberg, is the strict application of the DeNitrification-DeCompostion (DNDC) biogeochemical model to every field generating offsets, a rigorous process that requires a high level of expertise to be applied at a relatively granular levels. Weisberg worries this would be carried over to other agriculture protocols.

“We really want offsets to be accurate in quantifications,” Weinberg said. “But it’s expensive to use the [DNDC] model on each project. There needs to be some aggregation.”

Whatever the concerns, ARB looks set to approve the protocol next week. In a series of public comments submitted to ARB and published this week, the agency defended its environmental analysis of the measure and conveyed little inclination to further revise the protocol.

Furthermore, the ARB board last year voted unanimously to direct its staff to include rice cultivation offsets in California’s cap-and-trade system.

“I think that CARB and its staff see the importance in generating an adequate supply [of offsets],” said EDF’s Parkhurst. “Agriculture is the largest opportunity.”

By Robert Mullin – news@carbon-pulse.com

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