Carbon offsets, Carbon Trading, and Other Nonsense.

A couple weeks ago, a colleague told me about a website called

All you have to do is provide your car and a number of miles you drive, and the website calculates how much carbon you need to offset.  You give them your credit card information and then you have been absolved from carbon sin.

The website indicates great support from the environmental community.

Read on and tell me how this sort of scam will help global warming.  What’s even more important is that a bigger scam — carbon trading — is the preferred method for dealing with global warming.

BusinessWeek published an exposé of what this company really provides.

Elgin, Ben. 2007. “Another Inconvenient Truth: Behind the feel-good hype of carbon offsets, some of the deals don’t deliver.”  Business Week (26 March).

TerraPass was the brainchild of Karl Ulrich, a professor at the Wharton School. Ulrich, an environmentalist who bikes to work, became concerned several years ago about the carbon dioxide emitted when he drove to his cabin in Vermont. In the fall of 2004 he gave one of his classes $5,000 and challenged students to create an affordable carbon-offset program.  TerraPass, with a number of Wharton graduates as shareholders, has soared since then.  The company now claims 42,500 customers.  Tom Arnold, the 30-year-old former Ulrich student who runs the business, says TerraPass has already had a major impact by offsetting more than 117,000 tons of greenhouse gases.  Ford Motor Co. and the travel Web site collaborate with the offset-retailer to offer customers the option of neutralizing travel-related emissions for an added cost.”

“One of the largest in its portfolio is a sprawling garbage dump outside of Springdale, Ark., from which TerraPass has purchased thousands of tons of gas reductions. The vast sloping mound of the Tontitown landfill rises near stands of bare-limbed hickory and oak trees, with the blue Ozark foothills in the background.  The decomposing trash generates methane, a gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere, melting glaciers and raising ocean levels.  Waste Management Inc., the huge garbage processor that operates the facility, tends nearly 90 wells dotting the trash mountain, each giving off a barely audible hiss as it sucks methane from the depths of the landfill and delivers the gas to a single towering flare. Once torched, the gas is released into the atmosphere as less-damaging co2. But company officials and Arkansas environmental regulators say Waste Management began to burn methane, and continues to do so, for reasons having nothing to do with TerraPass’ offsets.”

Concerned that methane might be contaminating groundwater beneath the landfill, Waste Management first floated the idea for a gas-collection system in early 1999. Arkansas regulators urged the company to pursue this remedy. In 2001 the state increased its pressure by imposing a requirement for “corrective action” at the Tontitown facility. Waste Management promised to make the methane flare operational by late 2001. After probes subsequently detected methane levels exceeding allowable levels, Dennis John Burks, then chief of the Solid Waste Management Div. of the Arkansas Environmental Quality Dept., wrote to Waste Management on June 27, 2001, saying that the state “strongly urges WM to bring the newly installed Tontitown Landfill gas extraction system online as soon as possible.”  Asked about Waste Management’s response, Gerald Delavan, a supervisor at the Arkansas environmental agency, says: “It started out as a voluntary effort” by the company. “But it ended up being guided by corrective action,'” imposed by the state. Wes Muir, a Waste Management spokesman, says: “We felt a gas collection system was the most effective way to deal with this…. It was a voluntary process”.”

“Regardless of who deserves credit for taking the initiative, one thing is clear: The methane system was launched long before any promise of carbon-offset sales. In other words, it appears that the main effects of the TerraPass offsets in this instance are to salve guilty celebrity consciences and provide Waste Management, a $13 billion company based in Houston, with some extra revenue.”

“All six other project developers selling offsets to TerraPass that BusinessWeek was able to contact said they were pleased with the extra cash. But five of the six said the offsets hadn’t played a significant role in their decision to cut emissions. “It’s just icing on the cake,” says Barry Edwards, director of utilities and engineering at Catawba County, N.C., which installed a system in 1998 to turn landfill gas into electricity to power 944 homes. “We would have done this project anyway”.”

1 comment so far

  1. gordon on

    Anybody still interested in carbon emissions reduction (ie. who hasn’t simply given up in despair and gone to the pub, which could easily be shown to be the best available alternative at this time) would probably be interested in a rundown on the carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade debate in the US, at the blog Environmental Economics. The URL is:

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