California Air Resources Board Grants Forest Clearcutters a Free CO2 Pass8 min read

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Charged with implementing the provisions of A.B. 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the California Air Resource Board (ARB) last Dec.16 held a marathon day of public testimony in Sacramento before adopting the cap-and-trade program they declared would set “the gold standard” for such programs nation-wide.

Perhaps they meant fool’s gold, because in its rush to establish the final forestry greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting protocols for the program, the board tarnished the standard by giving timber companies a free pass on clearcutting. 

A.B. 32, signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, requires California to reduce its GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The cap-and-trade program being implemented to achieve that goal is due to begin in 2012.

The board’s vote will permit major timber companies such as Sierra Pacific Industries and Green Diamond Resource Company to include clearcutting projects among the forestry “offsets” they can sell to other California industries unable to meet their GHG caps under the law.

Under cap-and-trade, industries can trade across economic sectors. Forestry is one economic sector among many that will be participating in cap-and-trade. Other sectors include agriculture, energy, land use, industry and manufacturing, transportation, and waste management/recycling.

With Gov. Jerry Brown having reappointed Mary Nichols as Chair of the ARB soon after his inauguration on Jan. 4, all indications are that the ARB will continue its current course in fleshing out A.B. 32.

At the hearing, giant landowners and timber cutters and their allies in the California Department of Forestry (CDF) were able to convince seven out of 10 ARB commissioners to vote in favor of granting Big Timber clean-air credits for clearcutting – despite overwhelming scientific evidence that CO2 emissions from clearcutting contribute substantially to global warming.

Environmentalists opposed to CO2-emitting forest clearcutting also turned out in force to present their views. Yet despite an outpouring of oral and written testimony presented by some 50 green groups at the hearing – among them Sierra Club California, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch – the pro-clearcutting forces persuaded the ARB to condone an alarmingly bad practice.  

“We strongly urge the ARB to eliminate from the offset program the clearcutting of our forests as a way of sequestering carbon,” testified Forests Forever Legislative Advocate Luke Breit at the hearing. He urged the ARB commissioners to “add provisions to assure that forest projects do not result in the conversion of naturally managed (uneven-aged) forests into clearcut plantations.”

Yet the majority of ARB commissioners refused to heed environmentalists’ warnings.

Carbon sinks

California’s push to adopt stringent procedures to account for its forests’ carbon reserves – a big step in establishing a carbon-trading market – was given a boost in 2010 by the passage of A.B. 1504, the Forests Forever-sponsored “Carbon Sink Act” authored by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and signed into law by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The new law requires the California Board of Forestry to ensure that the rules and regulations governing logging maximize the potential of forests to sequester carbon emissions.

Yet the political and administrative process of establishing the state’s cap-and-trade program has been fraught with complexity, confusion and warnings of failure if major loopholes are left open. Perhaps the biggest loophole is the one allowing clearcutting to occur.

According to the United Nations’ authoritative REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, “deforestation and forest degradation…account for nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector.”

Since forests are one of the chief carbon sinks in America as well as the whole world, their value in carbon trading is of great interest to forestland owners, who stand to reap substantial monetary gains from selling offsets.

While many environmental groups believe cap-and-trade can be made to work, most agree that pitfalls in its design and implementation must be overcome. The allowance for clearcutting is one such flaw. Another is the accounting methodology used for calculating CO2 emissions and sequestration.

As Brian Nowicki, Climate Policy Director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), pointed out in a letter to ARB Chair Nichols, “Over half of the carbon stored in United States forests is in the forest floor and soils,” yet the ARB’s forestry protocols “fail to require forest projects to account for changes in the soil carbon and woody debris carbon pools, which can result in substantial GHG emissions due to the impacts of forest clearcutting.”

Vivian Parker, a biologist who lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills and has worked as a botanist for the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and nonprofit conservation organizations since the early 1980s, submitted testimony to ARB that under the board’s proposed protocols “all of the fossil-fuel emissions associated with timber harvests, from tree falling, hauling, milling, and transportation to the lumber yard and the subsequent milling and sanding that occurs when the lumber is turned into products are not accounted for at all.”

Protocols emerge

In September 2009 the board of California’s Climate Action Reserve (CAR) — a nonprofit organization set up by the state to serve as a carbon-trading broker — approved Version 3.0 of the Forest Project Protocol (FPP V3.0), an elaborate set of ground rules for determining who in the forestry sector gets to sell carbon credits on the open market, and for how much.

According to CAR, “The (protocol) provides guidance to calculate, report, and verify GHG emission reductions associated with reforestation, improved forest management, and avoided conversion (of forestland to non-forest) projects.”

No sooner had CAR finalized the new protocol than the ARB embraced FPP V3.0 as its own. Not so fast, said environmentalists who read the protocol’s fine print, including CBD’s Nowicki.

Under CAR’s previous FPP Version 2.1, no allowance had been made for even-aged management – another term for clearcutting. Apparently, between versions 2.1 and 3.0 someone had persuaded CAR to explicitly authorize the practice.

Environmental groups urged CAR and ARB to remove this provision or delay its adoption, but the ARB defended the adequacy of CAR’s forestry protocol. 

“It is my understanding that California’s Forest Practice Rules are the most stringent in the nation, and the protocols were modeled after that,” ARB Public Affairs Spokesperson Stanley Young told Forests Forever last July 7. “We assumed people would take advantage of the Forest Project Protocol, with ‘additionality’ factored in.”

Young was referring to A.B. 32’s directive that offsets-eligible emission reductions by an industry must be “in addition” to any reductions by that industry that would have occurred in the normal course of business.

Biologist Parker, in written testimony submitted to the ARB commissioners just prior to the December 2010 hearing, said: “You have all heard the myth: ‘California has the strongest forest-related environmental protections in the world.’ Chairperson Mary Nichols was even quoted this morning reciting this cliché. . .The fact and the truth is that California state regulators at CDF approve tens of thousands of clearcutting acres every year under the state’s Forest Practice Rules. Those clearcutting acres, termed ‘even-aged management,’ emit tons of greenhouse gases each year.”

A year earlier, on Nov. 10, 2009, the CBD had filed a formal letter with the ARB demanding that the board revoke the “illegally adopted” protocol, “which gives carbon credits to forest projects involving clearcutting and other destructive practices.”  

The letter referenced FPP V3.0’s specific authorization (under section 3.9.2.) of even-aged management. In virtually all respects, this section of FPP V3.0 simply regurgitated existing rules under California’s Forest Practice Act, posing them in such a way as to make them sound like fresh regulatory policies, and thereby allowing clearcutting to continue unabated.

Accordingly, the environmental groups charged the ARB with violating the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s premier environmental law, “by failing to consider the foreseeable environmental consequences of adopting the policy.”

About face

In light of much public criticism, on Feb. 25, 2010, the ARB formally withdrew its adoption of CAR’s FPP V3.0 and announced that it was actively working to develop and adopt its own forestry protocols.

As recently as Dec. 15, 2010, according to Mark Schapiro and Sarah Terry-Cobo in California Watch, ARB Chair Nichols was insisting that clearcutting would not be part of the final forestry protocols. She reportedly told them that the ARB was considering additional provisions to “make it absolutely clear that we are not going to provide any incentives for even-aged management.”

Yet, as those who testified before the ARB the next day soon learned, the ARB did no such thing. The board enacted the cap-and-trade program with no revision of the Forest Project Protocol.  Clearcutting was incentivized, not discouraged. 

Perhaps under a new, greener governor, Nichols will yet manage to hold true to her statement. As yet, however, Big Timber is getting its way.

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Mark Mardon edits publications for Forests Forever, a non-profit advocacy organization that works on protecting and enhancing the forests and wildlife habitat of California through educational, legislative and electoral activities. Mark has covered environmental issues extensively, including as staff writer and associate editor of Sierra, the Sierra Club’s flagship publication, from 1987-1994.

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