Carbon capture paysWritten by Jennifer Womack
Glendo – “It was enlightening to see that first check,” says Don Smathers, who along with his wife Renee is among the earliest Wyoming ranchers to be paid for sequestering carbon. While it wasn’t a large check, Smathers says it was proof the program is a “real deal.”
Carbon sequestration for the Smathers began a year and a half ago when they read about the subject in a newspaper and followed up with more in-depth research. Smathers says that research lead them to the North Dakota Farmers Union. “They were the only ones viable in this area,” he says of the entity that serves as an aggregator of carbon credits, preparing pools of carbon to be traded on the Chicago Climate Exchange. “They’re the fiscal and contracting agent for the National Farmers Union,” explains Smathers.
The Smathers were able to enter much of the needed information online, which was followed up by a signed contract and map submitted via mail. Their first submission involved their irrigated alfalfa hay meadows near Fort Laramie, followed by their rangeland near Glendo. Smathers says the irrigated land was done in two parts due to a switch from corrugated handsets to center pivot irrigation in one area, which was accompanied by a reseeding of the alfalfa. Enrollment of the rangelands, says Smathers, was more complicated than enrolling the irrigated ground.
With the block of carbon, the tradable unit, including the Smathers’ land compiled in June he says a check arrived fairly soon afterwards. “Small operators like us are verified through spot checks,” he says. “I don’t know who the verifier is for this area. They haven’t called us yet to do a spot check, but that isn’t to say they haven’t driven by and looked at it.”
Grant Stumbough, Southeast Wyoming Resource Conservation and Development Coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), explains contracts are done on a five-year basis. The price, however, isn’t locked in. “You sell the CO2 you store on an annual basis,” says Stumbough. “Payments are yearly and based on the current carbon market price.”
While market prices have declined amidst recent economic turmoil, Stumbough is hopeful they’ll bounce back. “If it gets back up to $7 a metric ton you’re looking at about $3 an acre per year. At that price you can afford to implement management practices to sequester more carbon.”
Smathers says having a rangeland management plan, established in partnership with the local NRCS office, in place made the process more doable. “It was incorporated in our application for the CO2 credit program,” says Smathers of the document that served as proof they were properly managing their land. For those who don’t have a plan in place, Smathers says there can be a wait time at the NRCS. “You can do it yourself or hire it done,” he says of another option.
When asked if the effort has thus far been worth it, Smathers says, “Oh, sure. A friend of mine who also participates says if you’re already a land steward and you have the opportunity to continue that stewardship and get paid for it, in his words it’s a ‘no brainer.’ If it encourages stewardship and not overgrazing, then it’s worth it from an ecological and conservation standpoint as well.”
Smathers says landowners who lease property are eligible to enroll those acres in carbon sequestration programs. “If it’s a state or federal lease, as long as it’s not changing hands, you can sign that ground up in the program.”
“This is not a government program, this is an opportunity for landowners and industry to form a partnership,” says Stumbough. “It’s a chance to implement good conservation practices that benefit the environment and in the meantime the rancher can pick up a few extra dollars. A lot of people look at it as ‘pie in the sky,’ but it’s a real thing where we’re using plants to absorb CO2 out of the air and store it in the ground as carbon. It’s good conservation practices and landowners have a chance to get paid for doing that.”
Following a workshop that drew about 70 Platte County landowners, Stumbough estimates around 30 moved forward to enroll acres with the National Farmer’s Union program. “In my opinion, now is the time to apply and get involved in carbon credit trading,” he says. “If you wait until the price goes up then everybody is going to be wanting to apply.”
“I encourage everyone I talk to,” says Smathers. “I think it’s worthwhile.”
“It’s good for the environment, good for rangeland and good for ag producers,” says Stumbough.