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Santa Cruz Mountains redwoods lure cash for trapping carbon

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Mercury News
Kurtis Alexander
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LOMPICO - PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric's) is handing over tens of thousands of dollars to the nonprofit Sempervirens Fund to protect a 425-acre stand of redwoods once slated for logging deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The deal, expected to be completed next month, is part of the utility's efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions, in this case safeguarding trees for carbon absorption, and is helping to drive a new marketplace where people and business are offered an incentive to offset pollution.

"We're finding a new financial model here for doing things to capture greenhouse gases that wouldn't have been done otherwise," said Robert Parkhurst, climate protection and analysis manager for PG&E.

"It's a new paradigm for protecting the environment."

For PG&E, the program, dubbed ClimateSmart, works like this: Customers voluntarily pay to offset the environmental toll of their energy use; that money is then invested into projects that remove greenhouse gases caused by power generation, like the Lompico Headwaters.

Here, near Santa Cruz's Loch Lomond reservoir, San Jose-based Redwood Empire had secured a permit to log 202 acres of redwood and Douglas fir. In June of 2006, however, the Sempervirens Fund, amid community protest, stepped in to stop the harvest and committed to buying the property. The next year PG&E agreed to make the plot among the first where customers could pay to offset carbon emissions, ensuring at least some revenue for the Los Altos-based land trust.

PG&E's funding won't come close to covering Sempervirens Fund's $3.85 million purchase - roughly $80,000 is now due for three year's worth of carbon sequestration, with more expected in future years. But officials with the land trust say the money is simply a bonus to the fund-raising they've always relied on for land protection and additionally their participation in PG&E's ClimateSmart allows them to test and promote the promising carbon offset model.

"We want to be part of this new enterprise. The Santa Cruz Mountains is a huge aesthetic and great resource for us, but it's also a huge carbon bank," said Executive Director Reed Holderman.

In the future, Holderman said, funding from carbon offsets could become a larger part of the nonprofit's budget for acquiring land.

Friday independent auditors verified that the preservation of the Lompico Headwaters, meaning keeping it from being logged, had resulted in the capture of 14,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The verification, under the strict protocols of the national Climate Action Reserve, was the condition for PG&E's payment.

Assigning economic value to carbon capture, says Mahlon Aldridge, a vice president of Santa Cruz-based Ecology Action, is an important first step to regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

"Trading offsets brings immediate carbon reductions and also advances the science and technology of carbon mitigation," Mahlon said.

Ultimately, though, Aldridge says dealing with emissions head-on, rather than paying to offset the damage, is what needs to be done.

Carbon offset programs in the United States have been voluntary, though some are pushing to enshrine a cap and trade program in federal climate legislation.

PG&E, one of the first utilities in the nation to employ a program to offset greenhouse gas emissions, is funding seven projects, including the one at the Lompico Headwaters. Four are forest preservation efforts and three involve the collection of methane gas, another heat-trapping pollutant.

"This (program) has helped push a lot of projects that people have wanted to do from the red into black," Parkhurst said.

About 30,000 PG&E customers participate in the ClimateSmart program, paying an average of about $5 a month and raising a total of $6.5 million, to date, for carbon offsets.

PG&E is committed to buying 1.35 million metric tons of offsets, which the utility expects to raise enough money for by the end of next year.

Customer participation in ClimateSmart has not been as robust as it could be, Parkhurst acknowledges, owing to the economy and weak personal finances, but he says the program is still doing worthwhile work.

"I'm proud that we've been able to help not only the local communities but the state and world in capturing these greenhouse gases," he said.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut