Greenhouse gas leaks from trust

Tom Fletcher inspects the offsetting of carbon by the Pacific Carbon Trust.

VICTORIA – The Pacific Carbon Trust orchestrated a months-long campaign of calls and letters to discredit a report from B.C.’s Auditor General on its first two big carbon offset projects, before it could be released.

Just as the audit report was about to be made public, the trust, a Crown corporation created at taxpayer expense, participated in the leaking of selected critical letters to media outlets.

Then the Speaker of the B.C. legislature, Bill Barisoff, made a final, clumsy effort to delay the release of the report.

As soon as it was out, Environment Minister Terry Lake tried to discredit it, by blustering about all the highly paid experts who swore up and down that a forest reserve near Kootenay Lake, and a gas flaring reduction project near Fort Nelson, were bona fide carbon offsets worth $6 million of taxpayers’ money.

The audit states in plain language, with charts and timelines, that the $6 million was basically given away for nothing. I look forward to further audits on this carbon offset scheme, assuming it survives after the May election, because these two projects aren’t the only boondoggles.

The Pacific Carbon Trust was set up in 2008 as part of former premier Gordon Campbell’s climate change program. To make the B.C. government’s operations “carbon neutral,” the government and all of its agencies were required to pay the trust $25 per tonne for their carbon dioxide emissions from fuel use.

In 2011 alone, B.C. universities paid $4.46 million to the trust. B.C.’s 60 school districts paid a total of $5.36 million the same year, and the province’s six health authorities paid $5.79 million. The money is supposed to go to projects that capture carbon, thus “offsetting” the heating of schools, the fuel burned by ambulances and so forth.

The 55,000-hectare forest reserve is known as Darkwoods. The audit shows that the Nature Conservancy of Canada decided in 2006 to buy it, using $25 million of federal taxpayers’ money. The deal closed in 2008, the same year the Pacific Carbon Trust was formed.

From 2008 to 2010, the trust bought 450,000 tonnes of carbon offset, based on independent evaluations that all rested on the assumption that Darkwoods would be clear-cut logged.

Since the forest was already owned by Canada’s leading conservancy, this assumption makes no sense. Was the conservancy going to log it, or flip it to someone who would, after accepting $25 million in tax money to acquire it? Legally, it could not.

(I would add that the assumption that logging releases all of the carbon in a forest is also false. Lumber actually sequesters carbon for longer than trees, which eventually die and rot.)

The audit found a similar case against EnCana’s flare reduction program, which the company used on many wells before the trust started offering money. EnCana was saving money as well as reducing emissions without collecting offsets. Therefore, the audit concluded, neither of these projects was a credible offset because the emissions savings would have occurred anyway.

Here’s the next Pacific Carbon Trust project that should be audited. In a complicated transaction, the trust bought offsets from something called the Great Bear Carbon Credit Limited Partnership. Yes, this is the world-famous forest on B.C.’s North Coast that was subject to a preservation deal hammered out between the Coastal First Nations, the B.C. government and three U.S.-backed environmental groups.

That was in 2006. The offset purchases were in 2009 and 2010, years after detailed preservation areas were mapped and codified in law.

Again, the trust paid for forest that was already preserved.