Air Resources Board Offset Task Force Process Marked by Resignations and Recriminations

By Gary Graham Hughes

 

A task force facilitated by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to explore establishing new offset protocols for the California Cap-and-Trade Program is laboriously arriving at its conclusion.

 The finish line for the process has come into sight after a flurry of winter activity that saw two members of the task force resign in protest and the remaining members issue a scathing public statement repudiating the reasoning behind the resignations.

Arising out of the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the Cap-and-Trade Program is a markets-based mechanism that is intended to result in declining emissions limits for the states’ largest polluters, such as electricity generating plants and petroleum refineries. One of the elements of the market that has created the most controversy is the utilization of ‘offsets’ which allow for climate pollution at those large facilities to occur under the assumption that those emissions are being mitigated through other activities, such as forest management.

Cap and Trade Program, California Air Resources Board. Source https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/

The offset task process began when Assembly Bill 398 was passed in the summer of 2017 to extend the California Cap-and-Trade Program until 2030. 

Included in the legislation was a mandate to establish a Compliance Offset Protocol Task Force. The task force was intended to provide guidance to CARB for establishing new offset protocols for the Cap-and-Trade Program.

The task force has been beset by delays from the beginning. CARB issued an initial solicitation in May 2019 to constitute the task force. The composition of the task force was intended to represent a diverse array of stakeholders. 

Though representatives of a majority of stakeholder groups were assigned membership after the initial solicitation, the absence of applications for task force membership from representatives of the environmental, environmental justice and labor and workforce stakeholder groups required a second solicitation during autumn 2019. This second solicitation did result in applications for the empty seats.

In January 2020 CARB adopted a resolution to approve the membership of the task force and to confirm the mandate of the task force to provide a final written report identifying potential new offset protocols. In early March 2020 the task force held a first meeting in Sacramento, one of the last public in-person meetings hosted by CARB before the pandemic hit.

After many months of deliberations, in October 2020 the task force released an initial draft recommendations report. Public comment was opened with a deadline of Friday, November 6, mere days after the general election. While lobby groups such as the California Forest Carbon Coalition, representing major timber industry interests such as Sierra Pacific Industries, Green Diamond Resource Company, the Yurok Tribe, Humboldt Redwood Company, and the Usal Redwood Forest Company, provided comment in support of many of the recommendations from the task force, the draft set off a firestorm of criticism from environmental justice organizations and their allies.

This criticism was articulated in a strongly worded letter demanding a suspension of the offset program and the establishment of an independent third party review of  it. 

Highlighting concerns with the environmental justice impacts of offset schemes that allow major polluters to fulfill the requirements of the markets-based mechanism without actually reducing emissions at the source, the letter was signed by more than fifty diverse organizations such as the California Environmental Justice Alliance, Greenpeace USA, Indigenous Environmental Network, Asia Pacific Environmental Network, the Environmental Protection Information Center, and the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples.

A public workshop held by CARB on November 13 was a highly attended affair, especially by Zoom standards. After the November workshop the task force again retreated from public view, only to appear again in early February 2021 with a final version of the recommendations.

The final recommendations report was dissatisfactory to two task force members, who immediately resigned. The resignations came from Brian Nowicki of the Center for Biological Diversity, representing environmental stakeholders, and Neil Tangri of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), representing environmental justice stakeholders.

The resignation letter from Nowicki explained that the “recommendations contradict the interests of the environmental and environmental justice communities who seek to ensure that California’s climate policies fulfill their promise of improving public health and maintaining the integrity of emissions reductions.”

In his resignation letter, Tangri of GAIA flatly stated that the “logic of expanding the program without addressing its serious flaws is lost on me.” “Put simply,” Tangri continued later in the letter, “to address the needs of California’s most impacted communities the offset program needs to be reduced and refocused.”

The remaining members of the task force released a public statement categorically repudiating the resignations and the reasoning of Tangri and Nowicki for their actions. Among their concerns with the resignations was their “waiting for the final report to be released to express their dissatisfaction with the process.”

At the final task force meeting in March 2021, CARB officials were adamant in providing assurances that the recommendations were not going to just “end up on a shelf somewhere.” 

CARB staff are now reviewing the task force recommendations in preparation for presenting the material to the board. A date for that final presentation has not been set. For updates and to review documentation from the task force referenced in this article visit https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/our-work/programs/compliance-offset-program/compliance-offset-protocol-task-force.

 

Gary currently works as the California Policy Monitor with the international organization Biofuelwatch, which you can find online at biofuelwatch.org.uk for updates and to sign up for their newsletter.