Carbon credits provide Texas ranchers and farmers with new sources of income

WASHINGTON — For thousands of years farmers have been plowing their land to grow crops, and ranchers have allowed their cattle to roam the pastures and eat whatever they like.

As companies seek to appease shareholders worried about their climate impacts, they are buying carbon credits that pay growing numbers of ranchers and farmers across the country to convert to agricultural practices that increase the amount of carbon dioxide the Earth absorbs.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice University professor, said a rancher who only allows his cattle to graze a limited amount of pasture at one time, for example, can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in additional revenue. which helps landowners enroll in carbon offset programs through the nonprofit BCarbon.

He said, “There’s a lot of money coming.” “It’s all voluntary programs, but[SEM]pays and stakeholder audits, and that puts tremendous pressure on these companies to put in place carbon plans.”

Rancher Louie Snery and his son, Adam Snery, have converted 4,000 acres of ranch land in Matagorda County southeast of Houston into a renewable ranching operation. The practice known as “adaptive high-density grazing” involves rotating cattle, often daily, into much smaller areas to prevent overgrazing.

Sharon Steinman

Soil is a natural carbon sink – it contains an estimated 2,500 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, three times more than what’s in Earth’s atmosphere. When a plant grows through photosynthesis, it pulls in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transfers it to the ground through its roots.

But modern farming practices generally cause carbon to return to the atmosphere. If the farmer forgoes plowing instead and instead injects seeds into the soil or plants cover crops such as alfalfa and barley in the winter, they not only retain carbon in the ground, but potentially increase the rate of carbon uptake.

Louie Snery, a farmer in Matagorda County south of Houston, began rotating his cattle through his pastures seven years ago to prevent them from overgrazing, which damages grass and prevents it from absorbing carbon dioxide. He’s been collecting carbon payments for two years through a carbon broker based on estimates of how much carbon his entire land is absorbing – to be checked every five years with Sneary paying off advances whose numbers haven’t been proven.

Carbon credits currently sell for between $20 and $30 a ton of carbon, which on a 10,000-acre farm works out to about $500,000 a year. Then there’s the added benefit of being able to graze more livestock due to healthier pastures with better grass, says Sneri.

“We methodically move these cattle every day, so they only graze the top half of the grass,” he said. “Cattle is kind of like us. There are different weeds out there, and there are certain weeds that they like more than others and would eat right off the ground if you let them.”

And the price companies are willing to pay for decarbonization is only expected to grow in the coming years. A report by European energy giant Shell last year estimated markets for voluntary carbon credits It could grow as much as fivefold over the next eight years to $10 billion a year.

However, despite all the hype, the degree to which removing carbon from nature is a viable climate solution remains controversial.

Recently For months now, investors have begun to wonder whether carbon credit companies are overestimating them The amount of carbon absorbed from reforestation and sustainable agriculture projects.

Estimates of how much carbon these practices could remove from the atmosphere vary widely. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., estimates soil carbon sequestration At best it would pull less than 400 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere annually, about 1% of current global emissions.

Some scientists believe the potential is much higher.

Research on how carbon-constrained renewable farming technologies are to date, said Tim LaSalle, co-founder of the Center for Renewable Agriculture and Resilient Systems at California State University, Chico, and believes that properly managed farmland can absorb ten tons of carbon dioxide per capita. acres, many times current estimates.

He said, “Most scholars wouldn’t believe it.” They measure broken soil systems destroyed by tillage and fertilizer. We’re trying to support how nature builds soil, and as we start to gain soil function, we start accumulating carbon faster.”

However, for companies eager to prove they are working on a climate change problem, regenerative agriculture has emerged as an increasingly attractive field.

Take care of the oil

Among the most committed backers are some of the world’s largest oil companies, which are eyeing carbon removal technologies of all kinds as a way to reduce their carbon emissions.

Hess Corp. supports the research being conducted by the California-based Salk Institute in developing a plant with larger root systems that can store “billions of tons of carbon dioxide annually,” the company said in a press release. ExxonMobil is helping fund a three-year study at Rice University on the potential to decarbonize US grasslands.

At his south Houston ranch, Sneary hosted executives from Houston-based Marathon Oil and online retailer Shopify, the latter of which sent a camera crew.

“They should use it for public relations,” he said, “to tell their customers what we do.”

However, for now, many farmers and ranchers are still wary of investing in sustainable farming techniques for which there is no guarantee of return on investment.

Many carbon credit programs only pay CO2 farmers and can prove their land is actually absorbing, usually through soil samples. And if the carbon credit brokers’ estimates prove wrong, or there is a drought, which reduces carbon uptake, the farmer could end up with little money for their efforts.

“There is tremendous interest, but there is also confusion because so much hype was better than reality,” said Blackburn of Rice University. “You have to have the science and the testing to back up the claims. And especially when you get to the west of Austin, the drought conditions there are not conducive to putting carbon into the ground.”

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