Carbon limits a boon for traders

Proposed emissions standards may galvanize business in Georgia

As the federal government starts to take a firmer stance against the carbon emissions that are blamed for global warming, Georgia businesses, along with the state’s trees, are a growing part of the equation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up to regulate how much carbon both fossil-fuel burning power plants and oil refineries can pump into the atmosphere.

Proposed limits are expected to be made public later in 2011 and could become law in 2012.

For Atlanta entrepreneur Mark Loewen, the new rules mean more competition is on the way in his business dealing in greenhouse gas credits.

He figures his $1 million-a-year business, Carbon International, is ahead of the curve in the small but emerging market in trading carbon offsets. It works like this: Companies that emit carbon gases, such as smoke from fleets of diesel trucks, or smokestacks, go to a carbon trader. The trader hooks the businesses up with timber companies or tree farmers and makes a deal.

The carbon-emitting companies pay the farmers to not cut down the trees or to plant new trees. The idea is that the trees, which gobble up carbon, will store up the carbon from the atmosphere and offset what the smokestacks spew.

Loewen expects his competition to heat up in the new year.

“This is huge,” said Loewen, who started his company about a year ago and now has a staff of 41 full-timers. “While a number of businesses voluntarily want to reduce their impact, there’s nothing in the U.S. forcing anyone to do that. But that’s going to change fast.”

Carbon emissions, gases produced by burning wood and fossil fuels such as coal and oil, are believed by many scientists to trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and act like a greenhouse, warming up the planet.

According to an EPA press release, the agency expects to start crafting rules to govern carbon emissions from power plants in July 2011, and oil refineries in December 2011.

Loewen said that new regulations could spur a cottage industry in the carbon trade market.

“This will be unbelievably big,” he said. “While global warming has been a political football in the U.S., it’s regarded as fact across much of the rest of the world.”

But not everyone thinks this is the best approach.

Colleen Kiernan, the director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club in Atlanta, said that while her group is all about saving trees, they aren’t the cure-all for the environment.

“Holding onto trees is just a Band-Aid on the bigger problem,” Kiernan said. “We need to stop burning fossil fuels.”

More than 190 nations have adopted the United Nations international treaty, commonly called the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. The U.S. hasn’t adopted it.

Most of Loewen’s clients are businesses that operate, and pollute, in other nations, and those companies must follow the rules of the other nations — even if it’s a plane flying over another country’s airspace, or diesel trucks hauling vegetables up from South America.

His company has rights reserved for about 300,000 acres of pine forests in Georgia and 3.9 million acres of forest worldwide. That means his company has the right to put a hold on any future culling of the forest if a company pays to save the trees from the ax and bank up the carbon.

Depending on the type of forest, the costs for the offsets vary, Loewen and others in the industry said. Roughly one acre of pine forest can offset one ton of carbon. If you drive a small car that gets about 40 mpg, your car would generate about 1 ton of carbon emissions for every 250 miles, according to multiple experts.

Others in carbon-trading also expect the market to become a booming industry. Blake Sullivan, of the Macon-based Carbon Tree Bank, has 26,000 acres of forest in the state under contract for carbon banking.

“Georgia has an abundance of forests right here, and trees are like the lungs of the Earth,” he said. “They inhale carbon and exhale oxygen. We can be part of the solution right here in our own backyard.”

Sullivan said that much of his business is driven by companies that are already conscious of carbon pollution.

His group works with Power4Georgians, a coalition of small electric co-ops that started a program in 2009 called Keeping Forests in Forests. Under that program, about 700,000 Georgia electric customers are given a chance to contribute an extra few dollars on their electric bills, and that money is used to offset carbon emissions. The program has raised more than $250,000 so far.

But not everyone is thrilled with the idea of marketing trees as carbon storage banks, even those who are true believers in global warming.

Professor Judith A. Curry, the chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has been warning people about the dangers of climate change for years.

She even testified in November before the U.S. House of Representatives’ subcommittee on energy and environment about the dangers of global floods, heat waves, melting glaciers and sinking coastlines

“I don’t think offsets are at all useful,” Curry said. “While they may be a feel-good move, they don’t help in the long run.”

She said that most of the trees being reserved as carbon banks are already storing the carbon. A promise to not cut the tree down isn’t a lasting solution.

“We shouldn’t cut down all our trees. But, at the same time, you can’t promise that those trees will never be cut down,” she said. “If there’s a fire next week and those trees are gone, what have you accomplished?

“We need to stop using fossil fuels and develop other technologies that can permanently sequester the carbon, and keep it out of the atmosphere.”

Curry also said that it would be easy for a company to claim they have forests reserved in some far-off place, but it might be difficult to prove.

Loewen agreed that there should be strict verification measures. He also said that trees won’t be the only solution to global warming.

“But forests can be a big help right now,” he said. “We shouldn’t ignore this resource just because we don’t have the perfect answer right now.”