Debt-plagued Trans Mountain Corp. bought carbon credits from obscure seaweed cattle feed company that isn’t operating

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson
Researchers have found that adding some types of seaweed to cattle feed can help reduce the methane emitted from their gut. Photo by Jesse Winter/National Observer

Feb. 21, 2023

Trans Mountain Corporation purchased carbon credits from a tiny, non-functioning Alberta startup proposing to produce seaweed-based additives that reduce methane emissions from cows, Canada's National Observer has found.

The federal Crown corporation, which is labouring under massive cost overruns on its Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, purchased credits to offset some of its carbon emissions from Synergraze Inc. in 2021.

Synergraze is seeking permission to build a seaweed-additive factory on a plot of agricultural land in East Sooke, B.C. Researchers have found that feeding some seaweed species to cows reduces how much methane they belch into the atmosphere.

However, it is unclear whether Synergraze Inc., a company owned by Alberta woman Tamara Loiselle that lists one employee, will ever get its project off the ground. The company has yet to obtain permission to build on the land from both the local land use committee and the provincial body that oversees farmland — let alone grow seaweed — and faces stiff local opposition.

Residents are concerned the project will displace a neighbourhood daycare while harming the historic plot of farmland, which is protected as part of B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve. They are also worried the plant could contaminate local waters with invasive species of algae and warm water and are frustrated by a lack of transparency around the proposed development.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the project, experts say it is "a big surprise" that the federally owned Trans Mountain Corporation purchased offsets from Synergraze Inc. That is because if the feed supplement company’s application is refused, it will have no way to generate emissions reductions.

A Trans Mountain Corporation spokesperson told Canada's National Observer the company's "commitment is in the form of pre-purchasing emissions offset credits that will be generated by Synergraze. Trans Mountain does not own any equity in the company." They did not explain why they chose to purchase offsets from an untried company.

A 'Wild West,' says expert

Agricultural companies in Canada largely trade offset credits on the so-called "voluntary" market, which is not regulated by governments.

Trans Mountain Corporation purchased carbon credits from a tiny, non-functioning Alberta startup with plans to produce seaweed-based additives to reduce methane emissions from cows, Canada's National Observer has learned. -

National Farmers Union director of climate crisis and policy Darrin Qualman described this market as a "Wild West" where minimal oversight means it's hard to tell if offsets are actually reducing emissions. Companies selling offsets on the voluntary carbon market often "wink out of existence," leaving the long-term validity of the offsets they sold "not clear," he said.

In a 2022 report noting Trans Mountain Corporation's offset purchase, the company stated Synergraze Inc.'s "methane emissions reductions can be independently verified." Neither the company nor Loiselle answered questions from Canada's National Observer about who was managing the verification process and what would happen if Synergraze Inc. failed to open or reduce cattle methane emissions.

"In 2021, Trans Mountain invested in Synergraze Inc.," a Trans Mountain Corporation spokesperson told Canada's National Observer. "Trans Mountain’s commitment is in the form of pre-purchasing emission offset credits that will be generated by Synergraze. Trans Mountain does not own any equity in the company."

Canada's National Observer requested an interview with Loiselle multiple times to better understand how Synergraze Inc. plans to verify carbon offsets. We also asked for the scientific evidence it is using to back its claim that its feed additives will reduce cattle methane emissions by 90 per cent. Neither request was answered.

Loiselle instead sent Canada's National Observer a press release outlining the project proposal. This document repeated the company's emissions reduction claims without providing evidence and highlighted Synergraze Inc.'s partnership with the T'Sou-ke First Nation on the project.

T'Sou-ke First Nation Chief Gordon Planes referred Canada's National Observer to Loiselle when asked about Synergraze Inc.'s carbon offsets and the scientific basis for its emissions reductions.

The company has received $5 million from Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), an organization disbursing provincial funds to support clean technologies. A blurb about the company on the ERA website notes the project is valued at $15 million, and it is unclear where the additional $10 million is coming from.

The company's minimal transparency about its offset verification process and the efficacy of its proposed feed additive are not the only red flags about the proposed project.

On its website, Synergraze Inc. states it is “proudly supported” by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), with the ministry's logo featured prominently on a main page. An AAFC spokesperson said the ministry has never directly funded Synergraze Inc.

Clean technology accelerator Foresight Canada is also listed as a supporter. A spokesperson for the organization noted it "does not provide direct funding."

Trans Mountain Corporation did not respond to a request from Canada's National Observer to clarify how much it spent on carbon emissions offsets from Synergraze, making it hard to know if the corporation helped cover the remainder of Synergraze Inc.'s $10-million startup costs.

Seaweed species unclear

Moreover, it is unclear what kind of seaweed the company plans to grow, raising questions about the proposed feed additive's efficiency in reducing enteric cattle emissions.

Research into the emissions-reducing potential of seaweed found warm-water species are most effective, reducing enteric methane emissions by up to 90 per cent in a lab. Synergraze Inc. is licensed to produce a seaweed-based feed additive developed by an Australian company that only uses warm-water seaweed.

However, Loiselle has told local residents concerned about the facility introducing an invasive species that she plans to grow "Pacific seaweeds." Studies assessing the methane reduction potential of cold-water seaweeds more similar to those found in B.C. determined they have a "less substantial" impact on reducing cattle emissions than their warm-water cousins.

Loiselle is the sole owner and employee of Synergraze Inc. According to her LinkedIn profile and the University of Alberta's alumni magazine, she obtained a degree in environmental science from the University of Alberta's faculty of agriculture and a master's degree from St. Stephen's College. St. Stephen's College is an independent graduate college affiliated with the University of Alberta that offers courses in theology, psychotherapy, art therapy and spiritual care.

Her profile notes that she taught at Calgary's Mount Royal University between 2010 and 2020. She is the president and CEO of Tamarack Strategies, a consultancy firm on "energy, environment and Indigenous issues" whose website is no longer active. She was also featured in TIME magazine for conducting a dramatic 2014 ocean rescue in Mexico.

Qualman said regardless of these other concerns, when it comes to emissions offsets, questions remain about the efficacy of seaweed to reduce cattle burps. Cows produce methane as a key part of their digestive system and generate the most when they are eating grass or hay. While it is "kind of easy" to feed seaweed additives to dairy cows or cows in feedlots, adding them to the diets of cows on pasture would be "very difficult," he said.

Then there is the problem of how to measure the reduction in methane emissions associated with feeding the cattle the seaweed. Or how to guarantee that the carbon offset credits aren't simultaneously claimed by the farmer, Synergraze Inc., and the company that purchased them, Trans Mountain Corporation.

"There's so many unanswered questions that putting a number to actual emissions reductions is just impossible," he said.

[Top photo: Researchers have found that adding some types of seaweed to cattle feed can help reduce the methane emitted from their gut. Photo by Jesse Winter/National Observer]