By Chris Lang
Last week, Bloomberg Green published a great article about The Nature Conservancy and how it became “a dealer of meaningless carbon offsets”.
The article, written by Ben Elgin, looks into some of the offset projects run by The Nature Conservancy in the US. JPMorgan Chase & Co. has bought carbon credits from a project in Pennsylvania. Walt Disney and Chevrolet have bought carbon credits from a project in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And BlackRock has bought credits from a project in Albany, New York.
JP Morgan, Walt Disney, and BlackRock claim that by buying these credits, they can offset their greenhouse gas emissions. “But in all of these cases,” Elgin writes, “the land was never threatened; the trees were already part of well-preserved forests.”
The forest lands in Bethlehem and Albany are around drinking-water reservoirs. In the two decades before the carbon offset project the Bethlehem authorities had cut only 0.4% of the forest each year. In Albany, no harvesting has taken place for almost 20 years. Yet the project documents in both cases claim that large areas of the forests would be logged within a decade.
Elgin points out that,
Rather than dramatically change their operations — JPMorgan executives continue to jet around the globe, Disney’s cruise ships still burn oil, and BlackRock’s office buildings gobble up electricity — the corporations are working with the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, to employ far-fetched logic to help absolve them of their climate sins. By taking credit for saving well-protected land, these companies are reducing nowhere near the pollution that they claim.
All three companies declined to be interviewed for the Bloomberg Green story.
Carbon offsets are booming. BloombergNEF reports that companies bought more than 55 million carbon offsets in the first 10 months of this year – an increase of 28% compared to the same period in 2019.
Unfortunately, the article repeats the myth that carbon offsets “make sense” scientifically. That is simply not true. As 41 scientists pointed out recently in an article in Climate Home News, “Storage of carbon in plants and soils cannot compensate for emissions of fossil carbon.”
JP Morgan and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
JPMorgan has bought more than 96,000 carbon credits from the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a project in Pennsylvania developed by The Nature Conservancy and a carbon project development company called Blue Source, LLC. The project is one of The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands projects. Blue Source explains on its website that,
The program uses funds generated by Improved Forest Management or Avoided Conversion forest carbon projects to finance easement protection, sustainable forest management planning, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.
The project covers an area of just over 1,000 hectares of forest. Project documents state that
If the Bluesource – Hawk Mountain Improved Forest Management Project was not implemented, the forest management could feasibly resemble that of industrial forestland ownership in the region.
The reality is that the trees have been untouched for 85 years. In the 1930s, Rosalie Edge, a philanthropist, feminist, and bird watcher, bought the land and created the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association to protect the forest and to stop the shooting of hawks for sport.
Laurie Goodrich, Hawk Mountain’s director of conservation science tells Bloomberg Green that, “Our mission has been keeping the sanctuary as natural as possible.” The money from carbon offsets allows more saplings to be planted and for non-native weeds to be cleared. But she confirms that there was no danger of the forest being logged – the sanctuary had a management plan in place that protects the trees. Without the money from carbon offsets, “We’d still be managing the land the same way,” she says.
Lynn Scarlett, chief external affairs officer at The Nature Conservancy, says that the Hawk Mountain forest was in decline: “We want to go in there and improve that forest’s health.” The Nature Conservancy placed Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s land under a permanent conservation easement, meaning it cannot be clear-cut.
Scarlett argues that the project followed the rules set up by the American Carbon Registry. Under ACR’s rules, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was compared to nearby forests, including those run by commercial logging operations. The director of ACR, Mary Grady, argues that forests can be cleared despite the landowners’ plans.
Mark Trexler, a consultant who worked on the world’s first forest offset project, in Guatemala, tells Bloomberg Green that, “To say verifiers vouch for the environmental integrity of a project, that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what verifiers do.”
To make matters worse, under The Nature Conservancy’s FSC-certified management plan for the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, logging could take place. On its website, The Nature Conservancy explains that its Working Woodlands programme includes three elements: carbon credits, conservation easements, and certification. Certification includes developing a “management plan for harvesting timber”.
By selling carbon offsets from a forest that wasn’t threatened, The Nature Conservancy is allowing polluting corporations to continue pumping out greenhouse gases, and thus making the climate crisis worse. The only reason that carbon offsets exist is to allow polluting companies to continue polluting for as long as possible.
The Nature Conservancy’s tainted money
The Nature Conservancy has had a long and very cosy relationship with destructive corporations. In 1967, The Nature Conservancy hired Thomas W. Richards, an IBM manager, to run the organisation. In 1970, Richards told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m anxious to work with other businesses, particularly the extractive industries. . . . It’s conceivable, for example, that a lumber company could assess its massive holdings and find some areas that aren’t beneficial to it but which would be great from our standpoint . . . and enhance their public image in the process.”
In 1971, Richards started the Corporate Program at The Nature Conservancy – aimed at raising money from corporations. Two years later, Patrick F. Noonan took over from Richards as president of The Nature Conservancy. He made the Corporate Program one of his priorities. Noonan was often accused of taking tainted money. His standard response was, “The problem with tainted money is there taint enough.”
TNC sees no problem with working with Exxon, Dow Chemical, International Paper, and many other polluting corporations. Its presidents have come from McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. TNC spends about US$150 million each year buying up land or paying for conservation easements that protect the land.
But in 2002, the Los Angeles Times revealed that TNC was drilling for oil on a property donated to it by Mobil Oil. The land was habitat to a critically endangered bird, the Attwater’s prairie chicken. In 1999, TNC decided to permit new oil drilling on the land. A series of articles in the Washington Post provided more information on the scandal. A two year senate investigation into TNC was extremely critical of the organisation.
Then in 2007, TNC allowed the drilling of a new well on the protected land.
Offsets are fundamentally flawed
While the Bloomberg Green article is welcome, the offsets story is nothing new. Carbon offsets were fundamentally flawed from the beginning, and always will be.
In 1996, The Nature Conservancy jumped into bed with American Electric Power, BP America, and Pacificorp. At the time American Electric Power was the biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the US. The Nature Conservancy persuaded American Electric Power to hand over more than US$5 million for carbon credits from the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project in Bolivia.
In 2009, Greenpeace exposed the Noel Kempff project as a “Carbon Scam”, describing the project as “Sub-prime carbon brought to you by AEP, BP, and Pacificorp”.
The Washington Post asked American Electric Power’s chief executive Michael G. Morris about the company’s involvement in Noel Kempff. His response is revealing:
“When Greenpeace says the only reason American Electric Power wants to do this is because it doesn’t want to shut down its coal plants, my answer is, ‘You bet, because our coal plants serve our customers very cost-effectively.’”