Tuesday, October 16, 2007

posted by Jason @ 5:20 PM
This past weekend my boss sent me to the Clean Air-Cool Planet conference in Manchester, NH. Ordinarily, I'm loathe to give up my weekends for anything even remotely work-related (I am a government employee, after all), but this was actually pretty fun in a morbidly depressing sort of a way. Besides hearing that we have even less time than we thought until we lose all the fun places like Amsterdam, Key West and New Orleans (why are all the good spots so low?), I got to hear speeches from my boss at the regional level here at the EPA, his old boss Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the EPA, and several of the people who want to be her replacement's boss: Bill Richardson, John McCain, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Huckabee. There was also some science, and a few good discussions on various topics related to global warming. I snuck out early on Friday afternoon so that I could catch game 1 of the Red Sox-Indians series (more important than global warming!), but at the expense of missing what I'm told was a very spirited discussion of CO2 offsets featuring George Hoguet of Native Energy.

While I missed seeing George speak there, I did catch his presentation the next day in a smaller session. Native Energy is the big name in offsets when it comes to music. The company offset Dave Matthews's entire touring schedule retroactively, handled the offsets for all of Live Earth, and has worked with many other big names from Bonnie Raitt to Jack Johnson. After the presentation, I cornered him and pressed him for more info on the company's work with the music industry. He passed me on to Kevin Hackett, Marketing Specialist.

Before I start, an introduction to carbon offsets is in order. The simplest explanation is that they are a way to compensate for the carbon dioxide you're responsible for when you drive, fly, or use fossil-fuel based electricity or heat. You give some money to a carbon offset program like Native Energy based on the amount of your CO2 you feel guilty about. The program takes the money does something that is supposed to either remove an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere (by planting trees, for instance) or replace a fossil-fuel burning power source (by adding wind power to the grid, for example). Native Energy takes the second approach. If you want more info, I recommend reading Grist's short and sweet description, visiting the Tuft Climate Institute's analysis of carbon offsets, or delving into Clean Air-Cool Planet's 44-page Consumer's Guide to Carbon Offsets (PDF).

There are any number of problems with carbon offsets, and I'm on the record as saying that I'd prefer people spent their carbon offset money elsewhere. As Ed Begley says in a quote I'm shamelessly stealing from Grist.org, ""[I]f you're going to drive a Hummer and buy carbon offsets, that's like getting drunk every night and getting into an AA meeting, throwing money in the basket, and leaving." More troublesome to me, having to pay extra for offsets perpetuates the notions that being carbon-neutral has to be both expensive and voluntary. But they are a first step to either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, both of which I support.

But despite my general opposition to carbon offsets, it's hard not to like Native Energy. They go out of their way to address their critics and work as hard as they can to actually do good for the environment. The company is one of only four that Tufts recommends of the 13 reviewed. Native Energy is also working on a new project with the Gold Standard group to make sure that its carbon offsets pass muster with even the most stringent critics. They're majority tribally owned and are working to give Native Americans a viable source of income besides casinos. And to top it all off, they're a bunch of music lovers from Vermont.

The process of offsetting is simple. First, you decide how many tons of CO2 you want to offset and buy the credits (currently $12/ton). Native Energy takes this money and uses it to help finance either a new wind farm on Native American land or a methane powered-project on a family farm. These projects deliver renewable energy to the grid, displacing energy from fossil fuel plants. Since the fossil fuel plants burn less fossil fuel, they emit less CO2, and you can tell your friends that you're carbon neutral. After this point, Native Energy could choose to sell your CO2 offsets on the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), but instead it donates them to Clean Air-Cool Planet (CACP). CACP then retires the offsets, making sure they don't get double counted. For much more info, check this link.

And now, on to the interview:

Jason Turgeon: Tell me about the work Native Energy (NE) does with the music industry.

Kevin Hackett: Native Energy works with both Reverb and Music Matters on outreach. Both of them do a great job of reaching that youth market. Both take the position that they should help reduce emissions first.

JT: Do you see fans purchasing offsets?
: Yes, both through our standard programs for their homes and through things like stickers that have tons or pounds of offsets. But it's not a huge number of fans.

JT: Can you clarify the part of the process where you donate the offsets to CACP?

KH: When someone buys an offset, they can't really show it off to their friends. It's not tangible. We donate the rights to that offset to CACP so that it can't be resold or reused or double counted. Offsets and renewable energy credits (RECs) are traded on places like the CCX. Ours are taken out of that.

JT: Who owns the projects?

KH: It depends on whether it's on tribal land or a family farm. For wind projects, the tribe owns them. On family-farm methane projects, the farmers own them. We don't own the projects, we help finance them. We provide the last 20% of the funding. Our business model is to find projects that are on the cusp of being viable and provide that little push.

JT: What response do you have for people like Radiohead's Thom Yorke, who has said he doesn't like offsets?

KH: That's a statement that we get on a regular basis. Offsets are not the solution, they're part of a solution. Everyone we work with takes steps to reduce their emissions first. What they can't reduce, they offset. We stand by the projects that we work with. They are all truly additional projects that wouldn't happen without our funding. They're not up and running projects that are selling RECs on the CCX.

JT: You're famous for your work with Dave Matthews and Live Earth. Waht other acts have you worked with recently?

KH: Incubus, Martin Sexton Trio, Jon Butler Trio, Xavier Rudd, a lot of others.

JT: You work with Timberland, a company that is well known in the hip-hop community. Have you had any success working with hip-hop artists?

KH: No, but there's stuff coming down the pipe. We're open to working with anybody.

JT: Do you see bands rolling this into the ticket price?

KH: We've seen a lot of that. We see promotion companies doing this either as an opt-in or an opt-out.

JT: Native Energy is from Vermont. Did you work with Phish before they split up, or have you worked with any of the members on their solo tours?

KH: We haven't had any contact with them, but we're open to working with anyone.

JT: You're doing methane projects on family farms. Have you worked with Farm Aid?

KH: We have not worked with farm aid, but they would be a good fit.

JT: Is it easier to put up a windmill on tribal land than it was for Jon Fishman or Cape Wind?

KH: No, we still have to jump through all the hoops. Being majority tribal-owned certainly helps, but we have just as many hoops to jump through. It's all essentially federal land, so we have to deal with all the same regulations.

JT: What about NIMBY? Is it better on reservations?

KH: It's still an issue. In some ways, it might be worse.

JT: Are you working with anyone to certify your offsets?

KH: We haven't in the past, but the Owl Feather project will be our first gold-standard certified project. We're not doing anything differently than we would before. It's just a new bit of paperwork.

JT: What's on your ipod?

KH: Everything from Willie Nelson to Guster because we just went to the show, a little bit of hip-hop. I am a child of the eighties so there's some Ratt and Guns and Roses and Poison. I hope I didn't just turn off the jambase crowd. (laughing)
JT: No, no, it's cool, we're not all 19.

Thanks again to Kevin Hackett for taking the time out for this interview. Now here's some Ratt to take it home.

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"delving in" is definitely the right way to describe reading the Clean Air Cool Planet Consumer Guide to Carbon Offsets. It is definitely not user friendly and I feel it created even more confusion for consumers. bleck!
Native Energy's "offset" program is bs. Pure and simple. They are just an energy company (albeit a green energy company) gaining investors through spin PR. They offset nothing, cannot show exactly where one's money is going when given to them, utilize worthless and meaningless "renewable energy credits" and, in reality, "offset" nothing.
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