Verification at Issue in U.S. Funding of Soil Carbon Capture

The Energy Mix
Soil farm - Max Pixels

July 11, 2021

With the United States moving swiftly to fund credits for farmers who store carbon in their soil, there’s growing concern that the program may pay for carbon storage that is already happening—and give fossil companies and other major emitters a free pass to keep polluting.

As with carbon offset programs of years and decades past, a key question is whether or not the influx of cash will support new initiatives that boost soil productivity while moving the needle on atmospheric carbon concentrations, Grist reports.

If it works, the potential in carbon farming could be enormous: one webinar panelist a couple of years ago suggested a stretch goal of reducing carbon dioxide concentrations by 65 parts per million.

But implementation gets tricky. Grist tells the story of seventh-generation western Iowa farmer Kelly Garrett who signed up with the Nori carbon removal market, which compensates farmers for any soil sequestration activities dating back to 2010.

“It turned out Garrett didn’t need to do much to get paid,” Grist writes, since he hadn’t ploughed or tilled his fields since 2012 and was already making good use of cover crops to capture carbon and boost soil health. Even so, “since signing up with Nori, Garrett has raked in nearly US$150,000 for capturing carbon in his soil, though it’s hard to know exactly how much carbon Garrett is actually storing. And because of that, it’s impossible to know if he’s storing more carbon than he would have put into his fields if he hadn’t gotten paid.”

Which makes Nori a fine way to boost farm economies. But it’s “a problem for the carbon offset market (which is somewhere around a billion dollars according to some reports), which is built on the idea that money will persuade someone, somewhere, to remove additional carbon dioxide from the air,” Grist writes.

The problem came into focus earlier this year when U.S. fossil Occidental Petroleum made the fanciful claim that it had shipped a two-million-barrel load of “carbon-neutral” oil, after buying offsets for 65¢ per barrel. “if that money goes to some good environmental practices that were already happening—and not happening only because Occidental had paid for them to happen—the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will still increase when that oil burns,” Grist notes.

Yet carbon farming is enjoying a bipartisan moment amid the epic fractiousness in Washington, DC, with all but eight U.S. senators voting in favour of the Growing Climate Solutions Act late last month. A companion bill is making its way through the House of Representatives. 

“Done right,” Grist writes, “it might be the move that finally scales up the conservation practices that scientists have been begging farmers and foresters to adopt for years. Done wrong, it would allow corporations, such as Delta Air Lines, Shell, and Google, to pollute consequence-free.”

Program proponents argue that the gaps and shortfalls—which Grist gets into in detail—are reasons to improve on the approach, not delay it. “We’ve got to get started,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). “Just because we don’t know all the answers right now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get started when we’re in the middle of the existential threat of our time.”

Stabenow said the Senate bill calls for government research to identify the elements of an effective, reliable carbon market—but warns that if the work is delayed, the U.S. will be left behind while the EU and others learn how to benefit from carbon capture in soil and forests.

Matthew Hurteau, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico, told Grist the details and verification are important, but carbon offsets have indeed improved over time. “They are getting better,” he said. “Fifteen years ago, they were like, ‘Hmm, hold your nose.’”

[Top photo: Max Pixels]