Columbia Valley municipalities mull over Darkwoods carbon credits

The B.C. Auditor General's report questioned whether Darkwoods is a legitimate source of carbon offsets

A flurry of controversy over a recent B.C. auditor general’s report may hinder the efforts of Upper Columbia Valley municipalities to become carbon neutral.

B.C. Auditor General John Doyle’s report a few weeks ago questioned whether Darkwoods – a 55,000 hectare tract of largely undeveloped land in the southern Selkirk mountains, located roughly between Creston and Nelson – is a legitimate source of carbon offsets.

The District of Invermere, the Village of Canal Flats, the Village of Radium Hot Springs and the Regional District of the East Kootenay were considering buying carbon offsets from the Darkwoods project so they could be carbon neutral for 2012, which they had pledged to do by signing the B.C. Climate Action Charter. Whether they continue down that path is now uncertain.

“It will take a bit of time; it depends on what information comes back about the Darkwoods,” said Invermere mayor Gerry Taft. “It’s pretty limited on where we can buy offsets and have them meet the requirement of the charter.”

“We are advising local governments that Darkwoods is still an option pending due diligence and we are still in the due diligence phase,” said Dale Littlejohn,

project manager for the Carbon Neutral Kootenay Project, an non-profit society that helps Kootenay governments meet their charter goal. “No offsets have been purchased to date by Kootenay local governments from that project.”

Under the charter, which has been signed by 180 of B.C.’s 188 municipalities, local governments try to cut back carbon emissions as much they can. Cutting emissions all the way to zero is impossible, so local government make up the difference by purchasing carbon offsets — essentially paying for carbon emissions to be reduced or sequestered elsewhere.

B.C. municipalities have until June 8th this year to buy offsets to counter-balance last year’s carbon emission, and in so doing, become officially carbon neutral for 2012.

Few offset projects have so far been deemed legitimate by the charter, and Darkwoods is the only one local to the Kootenay area, making it a natural choice for governments in the region.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased the Darkwoods in 2008 from Duke Carl von Wurttemberg and began managing it as North America’s largest private carbon forest project. Darkwoods, along with natural gas producer Encana’s underbalanced drilling project, accounts for 70 per cent of carbon offsets purchased in B.C.

But the auditor general’s report slammed both projects. The Duke would not have sold to anybody who would have intensively logged or in other ways heavily developed the Darkwoods, meaning the Nature Conversancy of Canada is earning carbon credits for protecting land that likely would have been left alone in any case, according to the report. Carbon offset projects are only valid under the charter if they sequester carbon that otherwise would be released.

Mr. Doyle was also scathing in his assessment of the Pacific Carbon Trust, an organization that acted as a middle agent in purchasing carbon offsets from Darkwoods. Mr. Doyle said the trust lacked transparency, organized what he calls “an orchestrated campaign” against him and leaked confidential information.

A hailstorm of heated response greeted the report, even before it was officially released. The Nature Conservancy of Canada and Pacific Carbon Trust maintain the Darkwoods is a credible carbon offset source, with the Conservancy saying the Duke might have indeed sold to a logging interest or developer if nobody else had stepped forward to offer fair market value.

Terry Lake, B.C.’s environment minister, said the provincial government accepts Mr. Doyle’s recommendations but rejects his conclusions. Other critics dismissed the report for only citing two papers – a six-year old World Wildlife Fund report and a lone academic paper by G. Cornelis van Kooten, who the critics say has a long history of climate change skepticism.

The controversy only deepened when Mr. Doyle fired four employees a week and a half ago, a move some critics allege may be linked to the report.

But Mr. Littlejohn said that, in some respects, the Darkwoods controversy is not so important.

“We don’t want the bigger picture to get lost on the last step of a really long journey,” said Mr. Littlejohn.

He said the Carbon Neutral Kootenay Project never intended for the Darkwoods to be a long-term source of carbon offsets.

“The Darkwoods was the only project within the Kootenay-Columbia area that was ready to go in the time frame,” he said, adding a better long-term option is to spend the money encouraging more smaller-scale options that might otherwise never get off the ground, such as local composting initiatives, home renovations and protecting municipal land.



*Contributed by reporter Steve Hubrecht