Posted on December 15, 2009 by Patrick Dennis
Despite the widespread publicity surrounding the actions being undertaken by EPA and in Congress to address greenhouse gas emissions and the potential for a cap and trade program at the federal level, few lawyers are aware that rigorously verified carbon offset credits are currently available for purchase by third parties. Generally, carbon offset credits are issued in exchange for a project proponent’s (e.g., a property owner or other participating entity) implementation of practices and programs which sequester carbon or otherwise reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In some types of projects, CO2 (carbon dioxide) is sequestered in the leaves, trunks and roots of trees on the property, converted into carbon, and held in the vegetation and soil on the property. By growing a forest or managing a forest in such a way that it sequesters more carbon than would otherwise be held on the property, the project proponent becomes eligible for carbon offset credits, which can then be sold or optioned to third parties.
Carbon offset credits are issued not just for forest projects, but also for greenhouse gas reduction projects involving coal mine methane, landfill gases, livestock gases, and nitric oxide emissions. The carbon offset market incentivizes greenhouse gas sequestration and reduction, and provides a product to third parties looking for a way to offset their carbon emissions or otherwise satisfy regulatory requirements.
There are currently few organizations that issue any type of evaluation and registration for carbon offset credits. One of these organizations, the Climate Action Reserve is a non-profit based in Los Angeles, California which has registered a variety of types of greenhouse gas projects and is currently issuing carbon offset credits to project participants. The Chicago Climate Exchange also provides a cap and trade system for six greenhouse gases, with global affiliates and projects worldwide. There are other, regional and specialized programs that are much more narrow in their applicability and the types of emissions they verify.
The Climate Action Reserve’s carbon offset credits are the result of a rigorous, third-party verification process to quantify and verify the net greenhouse gas emissions sequestration on projects based upon hundreds of pages of protocols which address details ranging from the modeling of carbon stored in live trees, dead wood and wood products, to annual monitoring requirements to determine reversals of carbon sequestration. In the case of forest projects, covenants and contracts require that the project proponent (e.g. the property owner) abide by the protocols and sequester carbon for at least 100 years.
A variety of legal issues arise about how best to document a project proponent’s commitments over the 100 year period, whether that be through contracts, covenants, restrictive easements, conservation easements, mortgages or some combination thereof. While California’s statutory scheme is relatively clear about what types of recorded documents run with the land, other States provide less guidance. See, e.g.,California Civil Code 1460 et seq. Likewise, legal documentation must address a variety of issues including subordination to future encumbrances; future transfers of any subject property; reversals or significant carbon loss in the event of natural disasters (e.g., forest fires, earthquakes, etc.); and remedies in the event of intentional acts in violation the project proponent’s commitments (e.g., failure to sequester adequate carbon stocks).
After a project proponent complies with the documentation requirements, registers its project with the applicable entity and been issued carbon offset credits, it is then available to sell or option such credits to third parties. The market for these credits is growing. Currently, corporations and entities who have made voluntary greenhouse gas reduction commitments have purchased these credits to help fulfill such commitments. Obviously, if a mandatory cap and trade system is implemented either in California or on a nationwide basis, then such carbon offset credits will become more valuable. Likewise, if federal, state and local authorities, courts or other jurisdictions require project developers to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, carbon offset credits are likely to become more expensive.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher provides pro bono representation to the Climate Action Reserve. Posting submitted by: Patrick W. Dennis, Charles H. Haake and Shireen B. Rahnema of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.