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USDA wants farmer input on rules for a voluntary carbon market

By:Peggy Kirk Hall, Attorney and Director, Agricultural & Resource Law Program Wednesday, June 05th, 2024

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service (USDA) is asking the agricultural community to weigh in on a new program aimed at the voluntary carbon market in the U.S.  The agency has published a Request for Information seeking input on what the agency should consider in developing rules for the new “Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Program.”  The purpose of the new program, created by the passage of the Growing Climate Solutions Act last year, is to facilitate farmer, rancher, and private forest landowner participation in voluntary carbon markets by: (1) publishing a list of widely accepted protocols designed to ensure consistency, reliability, effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency of voluntary credit markets; (2) publishing descriptions of widely accepted qualifications possessed by covered entities that provide technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners; (3) publishing a list of qualified technical assistance providers and third-party verifiers; and (4) providing information to assist farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners in accessing voluntary credit markets.

Farmers haven’t engaged in the voluntary carbon market to the extent some predicted several years ago, when “carbon agreements” began circulating through the agricultural community.  A carbon agreement is a private  contract that compensates a farmer for adopting practices that sequester carbon, with one ton of sequestered carbon creating a “carbon credit.”  Those who pay farmers for the carbon credits can retain the credits or trade the credits through a carbon market.  The owner of the carbon credits can use the credits to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, with the goal of reducing their “carbon footprint.”

According to USDA Secretary Vilsack, “high-integrity voluntary carbon markets offer a promising tool to create new revenue streams for producers and achieve greenhouse gas reductions from the agriculture and forest sectors.  However, a variety of barriers have hindered agriculture’s participation in voluntary carbon markets and we are seeking to change that by establishing a new Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Program.”  In its Request for Information, the agency seeks responses to eight questions:

Question 1: How should USDA define the terms “consistency,” “reliability,” “effectiveness,” “efficiency,” and “transparency” (see 7 U.S.C. 6712(c)(1)(A)) for use in protocol evaluation?

Question 2: What metrics or standards should USDA use to evaluate a protocol's alignment with each of the five criteria to be defined in Question 1? What should USDA consider as minimum criteria for a protocol to qualify for listing under the Program?

Question 3: In general, after a new protocol is published, how long does it take for a project to use the protocol and be issued credits ( i.e., what is the lag time between protocol publication and first credit generation)?

Question 4: Which protocol(s) for generating voluntary carbon credits from agriculture and forestry projects should USDA evaluate for listing through the Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Program?

Question 5: Additional information for any protocol(s) identified under Question 4.

Question 6: How should USDA evaluate technical assistance providers (TAP)? What should be the minimum qualifications, certifications, and/or expertise for a TAP to qualify for listing under the Program?

Question 7: Should the qualifications and/or registration process be different for entities and individuals that seek to register as a TAP?

Question 8: What should be the minimum qualifications and expertise for a third-party verifier to qualify for registration under the Program?

The agency will accept comments on the questions until June 28, 2024.

Part of a broader policy initiative

USDA announced the Request for Information on the same day that Secretary Vilsack, Energy Secretary Granholm, and Treasury Secretary Yellen, published a Joint Statement of Policy and Principles for Voluntary Carbon Markets, which outlines seven principles for the government’s approach to advancing “high-integrity voluntary credit markets,” summarized in a White House Fact Sheet:

  1. Carbon credits and the activities that generate them should meet credible atmospheric integrity standards and represent real decarbonization.
  2. Credit-generating activities should avoid environmental and social harm and should, where applicable, support co-benefits and transparent and inclusive benefits-sharing.
  3. Corporate buyers that use credits should prioritize measurable emissions reductions within their own value chains.
  4. Credit users should publicly disclose the nature of purchased and retired credits.
  5. Public claims by credit users should accurately reflect the climate impact of retired credits and should only rely on credits that meet high integrity standards.
  6. Market participants should contribute to efforts that improve market integrity.
  7. Policymakers and market participants should facilitate efficient market participation and seek to lower transaction costs.

The recent USDA announcements once again suggest that there are many issues for farmers considering engaging in the carbon market.  Caution is usually warranted when dealing with a new, developing market.  For farmers who do want to enter into the carbon market, be sure to refer to our posts on Carbon as a commodity for agriculture? and Considering carbon farming? Take time to understand carbon agreements.  The Farmers Legal Action Group also has an excellent publication on Farmers Guide to Carbon Market Contracts in Minnesota, also useful for Ohio farmers.