Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hand over the money or the tree gets it.

This is pretty interesting, if you believe there is something that can be done about global warming. (You have to believe that global warming is real. Those who don't can find something interesting to read here.)

Californians could soon invest in trees to offset the greenhouse gases they pump into the air when they heat their homes or drive to work.

The nonprofit California Climate Action Registry was set up by the state six years ago to encourage corporations and government agencies to track, and ultimately reduce, their emissions. The Forest Protocols program will allow environmentally minded citizens to pay to preserve enough trees to offset their personal carbon emissions.

The registry has calculated how much the timber industry loses by allowing trees to grow longer and bigger - past the time they're normally harvested. The industry would then be compensated by other companies that buy carbon credits - or shares of the trees - to offset their carbon emissions.
Actually it's a pretty good idea, and if anyone is curious about the workings of a carbon sink or how carbon sequestration operates, take a look here.

The question would be, then, who and how would the money be collected from those environmentally-conscious Californians?

For instance, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in January asked the California Public Utilities Commission to let it start a program next year where customers could choose to pay about 3 percent more on each monthly bill, with the money earmarked to preserve trees in a registered forest.

The utility pumps about 5.3 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year to supply the electricity and natural gas used by a typical household. If the homeowner opted to pay about $4.31 each month to be invested in forests, the trees would store an equivalent amount of carbon.

"It would cost them about $4.31 a month to become climate neutral," said Wendy Pulling, PG&E's director of environmental policy.

PG&E is the first utility in the nation seeking such a program for its five million electric and 4.2 million natural gas customers, Pulling said. The company serves about 14 million people in northern and central California.

If the utilities commission approves the plan later this year, PG&E projects that about 5 percent of its customers would participate, generating about $20 million annually. That would support a number of trees equal to taking 350,000 cars off the road, Pulling said.
Of course! I should have thought of that. Private enterprise can do almost anything better than government. It makes sense to take a corporation like PG&E and make them responsible environmental stewards. They do, after all, have a director of environmental policy. At first blush it looks like PG&E is being environmentally responsible.

Until you look at the whole thing closely. PG&E is applying to do little more than become a conduit for money. The residential consumer is the payer and while that makes a certain amount of sense, there seems to be little incentive for PG&E to pursue alternative means of generating energy. So, the consumer will pay, allowing the power generator to continue to pump tons of carbon into the atmosphere, which is OK because, well, there are more trees to suck up the bad gases.

Except that there aren't more trees.

The trees that are there will be there for a little longer. There will ultimately be fewer trees, a smaller carbon sink and PG&E, while looking environmentally friendly, gets to do what it always does.

And, for anyone who has a long enough memory, there is a niggling little problem. Funny how when you say Pacific Gas And Electric the name Hinkley pops up in one's mind.

Not that it's the same PG&E as thirteen years ago. No, the PG&E that paid out $333 million for poisoning the residents of Hinkley, California eventually sank into bankruptcy. Something brought about by questionable business practices and deregulation, which PG&E had demanded for years. We won't mention the Enron connection. (OK, but we won't repeat the line about "getting all of Grandma's savings".)

While California's energy consumers are going to be asked to voluntarily contribute to make PG&E look like an environmental sweetheart, they will be asked to forget the rolling blackouts, the siphoning of billions of dollars from the California company to its parent PG&E Corporation while PG&E California claimed it could not afford to buy electricity at the higher rates and the fact that they will now pay above-market prices for electricity through to the end of at least 2012.

And while PG&E California apparently went into bankruptcy because it was cash-strapped, the parent PG&E Corporation was wallowing in money and refused to assist its subsidiary. The residents of California were left holding the bag.

So, should the consumers of northern California buy into PG&E's plan? Perhaps they should ask the director of environmental research at the law firm of Masry & Vititoe. Or, maybe, when PG&E asks its customers for an additional $4.31 each month they should just send in a picture of Erin Brockovich.

No comments: