I don’t care if it’s Puget Sound Energy, the Hamburglar or the ghost of Genghis Kahn; if someone offers you 30 free LED light bulbs and tips on saving $100 per year on energy, take them up on it. That was my conclusion in an article about PSE’s Home Energy Assessment. However, I also recommended re-investing that savings in PSE’s Carbon Balance Program, which is proving to be a gray area.
If you’re unfamiliar with the program, here’s the gist. PSE customers can purchase carbon offset blocks for $4 each per month that go toward offsetting their home’s emissions. Each block removes roughly 400 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere. According to PSE, “the average customer can be carbon neutral for as little as $8 per month.”
So for $96 per year your natural gas-heated home can be carbon neutral. That’s about the same amount that can be saved by doing a Home Energy Assessment.
But where does that money go?
Where does the Carbon Balance Money go?
PSE does not directly profit from this program, although it may help them achieve energy efficiency standards and avoid penalties. It uses money from the Carbon Balance Program to purchase carbon offsets from “certified environmentally responsibly energy projects in the Northwest.” Past projects included Cedar Grove aerobic digestion project in Maple Valley and methane digesters in Eastern Washington.
PSE is currently purchasing credits from Port Blakely, a Seattle-based logging company that owns the Winston Creek Forest Carbon Project. This 10,000 acre project is third-party certified by the American Carbon Registry, which is by all accounts a meaningful and major certification. However, it’s probably not what most people imagine in a forest carbon project.
Winston Creek is an Improved Forest Management (IFM) project, which means Port Blakely isn’t permanently protecting the land or reforesting degraded land, it’s just opting for more sustainable timber harvest practices on this particular piece of land. Instead of harvesting trees at the minimum standard of 35 years, they letting them grow to 60 years old. According to Port Blakely, these extra 20-25 years are “prime sequestration” years.
Here’s a fun little PSE video to break it down. By the way, it’s worth reading the comments by concerned community members and trolls on YouTube.
Now, there are a number of ways to look at this program. On one hand, it’s a substantially certified carbon sequestration program that encourages sustainable forestry practices. On the other, the money from climate-concerned PSE customers is being used to encourage a logging company to operate slightly above industry minimum standards – it hardly seems like a heroic cause.
That leaves us with lays miles of grey area, so let’s go over some pros and cons.
- Port Blakely is a local company, and Winston Creek project provides local benefits like clean air, water and wildlife habitat (notably, critical owl habitat).
- The project is certified, which means the carbon offsets are real and measurable.
- The Winston Creek property is available to the public for hiking, fishing and other recreation.
- Port Blakely harvests less than 1.5% (150 acres) of its acreage each year. Admit it, that’s less than you were imagining.
- Selling carbon credits financially allows Port Blakely to practice sustainable forest management, instead of relying solely on timber sales for revenue.
- PSE buying credits from this project is temporary – at some point they will have to move on to a new project.
- This project is probably not what PSE customers are expecting in a carbon offset program.
- The irony of paying the timber industry to offset carbon is thicker than a 60-year-old Douglas fir.
- The Carbon Balance money could go toward reforesting degraded land or buying/protecting pristine forests.
- Douglas firs can grow and store carbon for up to 1,000 years, so it’s hard to believe carbon sequestration “peaks” at 60 years. They are far more beneficial when left untouched.
- Who knows what kind of forestry management Port Blakely practices on other projects? They could be managing one property sustainably and completely stripping another.
- Carbon offsets do not stop fracking or the flow of natural gas. Your $8 could be put toward converting to renewable energy.
You might be completely disgusted with this program. Meanwhile, your neighbor might think its the greatest thing since sliced bread – and you both would be correct. The important thing is that concerned citizens participate in certified, measurable carbon offset programs that align with their values.
Let us know what you think about PSE’s Carbon Balance Program in the comment section below.
Feature photo by Dave Michuda on Unsplash.